There has been yet another sign that our criminal justice system is in need of reform, this time courtesy of Louisiana. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on Monday that around 1,300 people have been held for four years in Louisiana jails without a trial or conviction, according to the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.
According to the Times-Picayune:
Last month, the sheriffs’ association tallied up how many people were sitting in jails without going to trial or receiving a sentence, [Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association executive director Michael] Ranatza said. The problem is so pervasive that it is eating into sheriffs’ budgets to house the accused for so long, he said.
Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, pointed to the state’s public defender funding crisis and the inability of the accused to afford bail as the most likely causes behind the detentions.
Louisiana is the only state to fund public defense services primarily through a system of traffic revenue, court fees, and fines, rather than tax dollars. However, the system has been producing fewer funds, and public defenders continue to be overburdened and underfunded.
The Daily Beast reported in May of last year:
A 1992 report commissioned by the Louisiana Supreme Court was “on the verge of collapse.”
Now it’s finally happened. In each of the past six years, Louisiana’s average caseload per attorney has been more than twice—and as much as five times—Louisiana public defender standards (PDF). By 2014, public defenders collectively had a budget of just $50 million to provide representation in nearly 250,000 cases, or about $200 per case. Two years later, in the spring of 2016, districts were so overburdened that 33 out of 42 public defender offices across the state had began refusing to accept certain new clients.
But the results have clearly been contemptible. In addition to resulting in thousands of people waiting in jail for years without trials, the Daily Beast observed that because Louisiana did not have the necessary funds to pay for public defenders, poor inmates would choose to simply plead guilty rather than wait in jail for legal representation.
But efforts are being made to correct this. A class-action lawsuit was filed in February of 2017 against Governor John Bel Edwards and the state’s Public Defender Board, by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center; the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the New Orleans law firm Jones Walker; and New York Law Firm Davis, Polk, & Wardell. The lawsuit argues that Louisiana failed to create and implement an effective statewide public defense system.
In October, a judge ruled that the class-action lawsuit can proceed:
“Louisiana’s broken public defender system has created a two-tiered justice system — one for those with the money for meaningful representation, and another for the poor that simply churns them through the system without the meaningful defense required by the Constitution,” said Lisa Graybill, the SPLC’s deputy legal director. “We are grateful for the judge’s ruling, which will allow us to continue working to ensure that all Louisianans, regardless of income, have adequate legal representation.”
The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees both the rights to an attorney and to a speedy trial. In Louisiana, a speedy trial means within 120 days for a felony charge or 30 days for a misdemeanor, unless a judge approves a delay or extension.
Conservatives frequently tout being defenders of the Bill of Rights. It’s important we don’t limit that to just the First and Second Amendments.
The Sixth Amendment is a significant part of our criminal justice system and establishes the rights of the accused. Without it, the accused could be held indefinitely due to unproven accusations.
Louisiana appears to have been denying people their constitutional right to counsel and a speedy trial for years. Who knows how many of these 1,300 people are innocent yet have been deprived of their liberty for four years while awaiting trial in jail?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.