(The Center Square) – Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive order suspending deadlines for district attorneys to file charges against people being held in jail presents a “grave threat to fundamental civil rights,” the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argues.
Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana’s executive director, said the “curbs on due process” leave people who are still presumed innocent under the law in “legal limbo” while doing nothing to protect public health. Almost two dozen organizations co-signed a letter to Edwards laying out their concerns.
“Far from stemming the spread of this virus, these moves will result in more people confined in squalid conditions where they are at substantially greater risk of infection,” Hebert said. “It is critical that the governor and the Louisiana Supreme Court instruct courts to continue to conduct daily bail hearings and release from custody everyone who is not a danger to our community.”
When similar measures were put in place following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it resulted in “widespread unlawful detention and widespread over-incarceration” with people “trapped in legal limbo for months,” leading to lawsuits against sheriffs and the state, the ACLU says.
“The legal deadlines that were changed were done as part of social distancing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially as different courts and public offices have closed,” said Christina Stephens, Edwards’ deputy chief of staff for communications. “We are aware of the ACLU’s concerns and we are doing everything possible to address all of the issues that are presented by this emergency.”
The Orleans Parish Reform Coalition, joined by the ACLU and other organizations, sent a similar letter to New Orleans and state officials raising concerns about a potential “public health catastrophe” at Orleans Parish Prison.
"[Jails and prisons] are incubators for infectious diseases, and the situation inside OPP will affect our community’s health on both sides of the jail’s walls,” the letter says.
The coalition's letter calls for people who are being held pre-trial and are at high risk for COVID-19 to be released from the city's jail, along with others who are being held for low-level, nonviolent or probationary offenses.
According to the ACLU, Louisiana leads the nation in jailing people before trial. The organization says pretrial incarceration costs state taxpayers $290 million annually.
At 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Louisiana Department of Health had reported 257 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, and seven deaths. The number of cases was expected to grow dramatically as more test results come in.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, coughing and trouble breathing. Most people who have it develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually the elderly and those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.