Louisiana has been detaining people beyond their legal release dates for over a decade
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Louisiana has been detaining people beyond their legal release dates for over a decade

Louisiana’s routine practice of overdetention is not only unjust, but it also comes at a steep cost to taxpayers.

On April 16, 2019, Brian Humphrey was sentenced to three years in prison in the 26th Judicial District Court in Bossier Parish, Louisiana. However, the sentencing judge gave Humphrey credit for the time he had already served in jail and suspended his sentence. Humphrey could have been released immediately, but it was not until about a month later, on May 13, 2019,­­ that he became a free man. Humphrey spent 27 days “overdetained” because of administrative delays. Humphrey is just one of the thousands of people overdetained in Louisiana each year.

Humphrey is the named plaintiff in a 2020 class action lawsuit filed against the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDOC), James LeBlanc. Following Humphrey’s lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation into Louisiana’s prisoner release practices. The Department of Justice investigation concluded that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections “routinely confines people in its custody past the dates when they are legally entitled to be released from custody, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The DOJ investigation report further noted that “of the 4,135 people released from LDOC’s custody between January and April 2022, 1,108 (or 26.8 percent) were held past their release dates.” On average, overdetained individuals were held 29 days past their release date. A startling 24 percent of those overdetained in Louisiana were held for over 90 days.

Louisiana’s routine practice of overdetention is not only unjust, but it also comes at a steep cost to taxpayers. According to the U.S. Department of Justice report, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections paid parish jails at least $850,000 in fees for the time individuals were incarcerated beyond their lawful sentences over a four-month period. That translates to approximately $2.5 million in annual costs associated with overdetention in the state.

The problem of overdetention isn’t limited to Louisiana. In 2002, a $27 million suit was settled in Los Angeles County that involved overdetention and illegal strip searches. Another $6.2 million settlement was reached in the District of Columbia in 2015, also involving overdetention and strip searches. More recently, in 2022, a class action suit was filed against the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, and a $300 million suit was filed against New York City, both involving overdetention of inmates.

While overdetention may occur in other jurisdictions, the state of Louisiana is an outlier. Notably, LDOC has been aware of the problem for over a decade. A 2012 internal report and legislative audits conducted in 2017 and 2019 highlighted a consistent pattern of overdetention due to administrative delays, poor data management, and a lack of clearly defined procedures.

LDOC’s outdated computer systems might be at least partially to blame for lengthy delays. The Corrections and Justice Unified Network (CAJUN) is the primary software that LDOC uses to manage its prison system. The software was developed in 1970 and was last updated in 1991. In 2015, the software was supposed to be replaced by a $3.5 million dollar system (Offender Management System-OMS), but the new system was quickly abandoned after less than two months because “it caused confusion and interrupted work efficiency.” LDOC has continued to rely on CAJUN since. In some cases, moving paperwork between departments requires government employees to physically drive documents across the state.

A 2017 audit of Louisiana’s management of offender data found that the tracking of offender data through CAJUN was sometimes inaccurate. The audit revealed numerous “material weaknesses in internal control procedures.” Eleven percent of files reviewed in the audit showed that inmates were at a different facility than what was reflected in CAJUN and 38% of users with access to the system were no longer employed at LDOC.  Notably, the audit concluded that LDOC’s procedures for calculating release dates were inconsistent and could produce errors. The Legislative Auditor recommended implementing a review process for all initial sentence computations.

In a response to the 2017 audit, LDOC Secretary James LeBlanc said, “Calculating each offender’s release dates is a complex process with up to 20 different criteria that impacts the computation process.”

LeBlanc went on to describe LDOC’s efforts to provide employees with training and resources to address challenges associated with high turnover rates and frequent legislative changes that impact sentence computation. A subsequent audit in 2019 found no improvement.

As Maybell Romero, associate professor of Law at Tulane University, told The Advocate, “This isn’t rocket science. Every other state — at least most of them — has a system that works.”

LDOC’s current practices cannot continue. The DOJ report includes several remedial recommendations, including substantial technological upgrades and the decommissioning of CAJUN. The DOJ also recommended the establishment of new policies and procedures related to personnel training, interagency coordination, and quality assurance and supervision.

At a minimum, LDOC should adopt all of the DOJs recommendations, although the severity and duration of the agency’s misconduct suggest that broader cultural changes are necessary. Other jurisdictions should also take note of LDOC’s failures and take proactive measures to avoid unlawful overdetention.