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Feds blast Louisiana for keeping prisoners past release dates

A Justice Department investigation found Louisiana spends at least $2.5 million a year on keeping inmates detained beyond the terms of their sentence, in large part due to clerical errors and an unwillingness to implement a better system.

(CN) — The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections routinely holds prisoners beyond their release dates, a civil rights violation that costs the state millions of dollars each year, the Justice Department reported Wednesday.

The federal investigation, which began in December 2020 and was conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, concluded that for more than a decade, prisoners’ due process rights have been routinely ignored in Louisiana and the state has acted with deliberate indifference.

“As a result of the systematic deficiencies identified in our investigation, thousands of individuals annually suffer the significant harm of having their freedom unconstitutionally denied by their overdetention in LDOC’s custody,” the 27-page report released Wednesday states.

The Justice Department says overdetention comes with collateral damage to the inmates and their families, "including missed important family milestones, lost opportunities to say farewell to dying loved ones, lost or missed job opportunities, and diminished opportunities to fully re-integrate into society."

The report concluded that prisoners are routinely held longer than their sentences mandated in part because of inaccuracies and data errors that also account for sweeping inconsistencies in logs keeping track of prisoner locations.

Since 2012, according to the report, filing inconsistencies related to prisoners’ charges and sentences have been known but the corrections department has been reluctant to make changes.

“In fact, when the Clerks of Court Association offered to begin electronically submitting sentencing documents to LDOC in 2016, LDOC refused, claiming that it would create more work for [the] department,” the report states. “Six years later, LDOC still does not have any formal plan to adopt a system that would allow it to receive sentencing information and records electronically from the courts or even to track delay attributable to the courts."

The DOJ says Louisiana prison officials have been on notice for more than a decade of the overdetention problem but haven't taken steps to ensure inmates are released on time.

The review found that between January and April 2022, 26.8 % of the people released from jail in Louisiana were held past their release dates. Of them, 24% sat in jail for at least 90 days longer than their sentences mandated and at least half were in jail for 29 extra days.

During that four-month period alone, the LDOC had to pay parish jails at least $850,000 for the extra days prisoners who should not have been there spent in confinement.

In a press release, the DOJ estimates the unconstitutional practice costs the state over $2.5 million a year.

“There is an obligation both to incarcerated persons and the taxpayers not to keep someone incarcerated for longer than they should be,” U.S. Attorney Brandon B. Brown of the Western District of Louisiana said in a statement.

“This can be costly from a physical and mental standpoint for the incarcerated individual and a waste of money for the taxpayer,” he added. “Timely release is not only a legal obligation, but arguably of equal importance, a moral obligation.”

The report said families of incarcerated people are routinely given erroneous information about their loved ones’ release dates and other information when they call the designated telephone line.

“As recently as 2019, families contacting this line were told that the timeframe for the completion of time computations was approximately four and a half months after sentencing, a timeframe that has no basis in LDOC’s formal policies or procedures,” it states.

At least 15 lawsuits have been filed against the state corrections department, the report notes. In one case, the plaintiff claims they were held for more than 164 days beyond sentencing. 

The DOJ is calling for numerous changes in the system, including the implementation of an electronic system to track prisoners. their sentencing requirements and time served, as well as better supervision of prison staff.

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