Public defenders in Calcasieu Parish have filed a motion in state district court asking for the release of more than 400 inmates from jail, with the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney's Office opposing the move.
Public defenders say their motion, which was signed by 18 local defense attorneys, is in line with what the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court says should be done.
In the motion, the attorneys asked for an immediate hearing to consider the release of inmates who do not pose a serious danger to the community, bond reductions, and reconsideration of sentences for those who are within six months of their release dates. The motion said the move is in line with a letter from the chief justice of the Supreme Court that urges judges to work for solutions to reduce the chances of an outbreak in local jails.
The letter said, in part, "Louisiana has a significantly higher-than-average parish jail population. An outbreak of COVID-19 in our jails would be potentially catastrophic for jail staff, the families of jail staff, and inmates. Therefore at this time, it is important to safely minimize the number of people detained in jails where possible. In order to restrict the potential spread of this contagion through jails, I ask that each judge in her/his criminal division, and in conjunction with prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs, conduct a comprehensive and heightened risk-based assessment of all detainees (except those who have been convicted of felony offenses and remanded to the Department of Corrections.")
Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier opposes the move, saying the release of offenders listed in the motion could pose serious dangers to the community.
"We are always willing to work with the Public Defender's office, particularly in these difficult times; however, we will not allow the wholesale release of criminals back into our community, many of whom have violent criminal histories," DeRosier said.
Natasha George, felony staff attorney of the Calcasieu Parish Public Defender's Office, said safely and swiftly depopulating the corrections facilities is a matter of life or death for all, including corrections officers, workers, health care professionals, attorneys, their families, and even inmates who have not been convicted of crimes.
Depopulation of the jail, according to George, will enable those who become ill to be treated and appropriately isolated. George said it would also cut down on staff attrition fueled by panic and reduce violence and help flatten the community curve when it comes to the pandemic.
DeRosier said the District Attorney's Office would not agree to release "sex offenders, drug dealers, and violent offenders back into Calcasieu Parish. The safety of our community always comes first."
Further, he said what needed to happen is each of the 413 cases mentioned in the motion should be analyzed and adjudicated on its own merits. "It is going to be impossible for a panel of six to nine judges to have 413 hearings," he said. "That's just not appropriate."
George said we, as a society, are "facing a world wide pandemic that has no precedent in living memory. COVID-19 is ravaging Louisiana with numbers of confirmed cases and deaths increasing at alarming rates, in some cases doubling overnight. Our state has more COVID-19 deaths per capita than anywhere in the country and our hospitals are being overwhelmed with the number of patients being admitted as well as a critical lack of available ICU beds and ventilators."
She said the entire public defense community takes community safety very seriously.
"After all, we, too, live in the community," George said. "Therefore we are not attempting to obtain the release of incarcerated persons charged with crimes of violence, sex offenses, or serious domestic violence offenses. The overwhelming majority of these persons are charged with drug offenses and the remainder are charged with other non-violent offenses such as theft and property crimes. They are being held in jail, in the vast majority of cases, because they simply cannot afford to pay a bondsman 12% of bond amounts that are, on average, $5,000. In other words, they cannot afford to pay $600 in order to secure their release and quite possibly save lives."
Additionally she said, "A COVID-19 outbreak in a jail first harms the men or women locked up there, innocent and guilty alike, then staff and their families, then, ultimately, the public. Prisoners with serious symptoms wind up in the local hospitals, worsening shortages of doctors, nurses masks, ICU beds, and ventilators. People who have never seen a city jail could die because too many others were kept in one. Sprawling state prisons in rural areas could flood tiny country hospitals with patients."
George said the public defender's office is working hard at securing the release of these inmates to reduce our local jail population during the pandemic, which at this point, according to George, is a jail population larger than that of East Baton Rouge and Orleans Parish.
"It was only after our initial efforts failed to reduce the jail population by any significant number, that we heeded and swiftly acted upon Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Johnson's observation that ‘these challenging times will undoubtedly involve novel legal solutions,' " George said.