Louisiana has known it overdetains inmates for a decade. Will the feds force it to stop? (2023)

When the federal government announced last week that Louisiana's prison system has been regularly violating the Constitution by holding inmates past their release dates— at one point affecting more than one out of every four people released — it was not exposing a new issue.

As far back as 2012, a "Lean Six Sigma" review of the inmate time calculation process found that overdetention was a serious issue, Department of Corrections Secretary James Le Blanc acknowledged in 2020 court filings.The 2012 review found the department was overdetaining 2,252 inmates per year for an average 72 extra days each.

In 2017, the Louisiana legislative auditor released a report detailing concerns about the way the department calculates inmate time. Then, in 2019, the auditor put out a second, similar report, this time declaring the department failed to properly track inmate release dates.

For years, the department has contended with internal reviews, legislative audits and a battery of lawsuits claiming overdetention is rampant in Louisiana's corrections system. Now the U.S. Department of Justice is stepping in after a two-year investigation, threatening legal action if the state corrections agency doesn’t fix the problem.

To start, the feds included in their report a list of the bare minimum remedial measures the department must to take to avoid legal action. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections did not return a request for comment.

“This isn’t rocket science. Every other state — at least most of them — has a system that works," said Maybell Romero, the Felder-Fayard Associate Professor of Law at Tulane University. "You are looking at a small sliver of reform here. We’re not looking at a consent decree that says, 'Fix your whole criminal legal system.'"

A history of 'indifference'

To make their case the DOC acted with "deliberate indifference" in violation of inmates' 14th Amendment rights, justice officials laid out a timeline in their lengthy report illustrating just how long the department has known about the overdetention problem— and how little it has done to substantively address it.

Corrections officials knew since at least 2012 there were challenges with calculating release dates and addressing overdetention. The revelations of that Lean Six Sigma review, part of an effort to audit the time computation process, painted a troubling picture of ongoing calculation delays that ultimately caused incorrect release dates.

"It took, on average, 110 days from the date of an individual’s conviction for LDOC staff to process and complete a person’s time computation," the DOJ report says, referencing the audit. "This led to a backlog of over 1,400 cases that were awaiting a time computation, 83 percent of which were for people being overdetained."

The audit claimed the problem arose from breakdowns in transferring paperwork from courts and parish jails, as well as insufficient training and high turnover in the agency's Preclassification Department, which handles time calculation for inmate release dates, among other duties.

Both the 2017 and 2019 legislative audits criticized the department's use of CAJUN (Criminal and Justice Unified Network), a computer system that had last been updated in 1991, replacing a version from the 1970s. CAJUN manages offender data, and the audits found that data is not always accurate.

The agency undertook a $3.6 million project to develop a replacement system, which went live on June 15, 2015. It failed just six weeks later.

The 2017 audit said the new system likely crashed because it was implemented without necessary testing, and staff did not fully understand how the system worked. The agency reverted to using CAJUN, despite its known flaws, including manual data entry that leads to errors.

DOC made some efforts in the wake of the 2012 report, including organizing a centralized Preclassification Department, standardizing some procedures and pursuing legislative efforts to streamline paperwork required from Clerks of Court across the state. However, the agency's efforts to develop an updated data management system called CIPRS, Justice officials argue, still will not "address the systemic deficiencies that lead to overdetention."

Around 15 private lawsuits that allege individual and systemic overdetention have also put the DOC on alert in recent years.

"For more than ten years, LDOC has been on notice of its overdetention problem and has failed to take adequate measures to ensure timely releases of incarcerated individuals from its custody," the report says.

The remedy

Fixing the problem, the DOJ suggested, largely comes down to updating antiquated technology and ensuring people are thoroughly trained.

While developing a more comprehensive information sharing system, the department needs to implement a temporary electronic solution to ease the paperwork delay among courts and jails, feds say. In the meantime, the department should work to create a functioning Criminal Justice Information Sharing (CJIS) system, along with strategies and a timeline to decommission CAJUN.

Crucially, the DOJ urged the DOC to address the slowdowns caused by transferring paperwork by implementing updated technology and bringing together both the Clerks of Court Association and Sheriffs' Association to communicate on the agency's steps toward simplifying the process.

The DOJ remedy also listed personnel training as an essential component of the department's compliance, along with developing clear policies and procedures to ensure the measures are followed.

If the DOC does not satisfactorily address the federal agency's concerns, the Attorney General may file a lawsuit to correct the deficiencies identified in the report. The Attorney General could also intervene in private lawsuits related to the state's overdetention problem.

Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, said the Justice findings were concerning, and overdetention should be addressed as a moral issue in the state. But she also noted she is hopeful that the DOC is moving in the right direction after corrections leaders have begun conversations with data experts from around the country.

One such company, she said, is Recidiviz, a technology nonprofit that works with state departments of corrections to streamline their data processes.

"[DOC leaders] do seem to understand there is an urgent problem, a serious problem that needs to be fixed," Bendily said. "I’m encouraged they seem to be taking advantage of the help and support of national experts."

What comes next?

For those serving prison sentences, 10 years is a long time. People mark the calendar as their release date nears, said Norris Henderson. They make plans.

Henderson,a formerly incarcerated activist who now runs a New Orleans nonprofit called Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), spoke to the human side of overdetention, and the cost of losing even a day of freedom after doing your time.

“People start making preparations for going home," he said. "When it doesn’t happen, it disrupts a whole bunch of things — not just the individual’s life, but people on the outside who had a job lined up for them, housing lined up. Parents are waiting for their child to come home. Kids are waiting for their parent to come home.”

Meghan Garvey, the executive director of the Louisiana Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that overdetention "drastically decreases" successful reentry into society.

"It is nearly impossible to secure housing, jobs, medical and mental health care when you can't predict a release date," she said.

After a decade of red flags, some predict that the Justice Department's intervention could force the Department of Corrections to make substantive changes.

“There’s been no real meaningful oversights and consequences for this behavior,” said Romero, the Tulane law professor. “We might actually, finally get some sort of enforcement here.”

Lydia Wright, associate director of civil ligation at the nonprofit The Promise of Justice Initiative, also spoke to the systemic impact of overdetention and, perhaps, a systemic resolution. PJI is currently leading two lawsuits seeking class status for overdetention in Louisiana.

"It's hard to think of a case better suited for class-wide resolution. The DOC overdetains thousands of people every year pursuant to the same systemic, unconstitutional policies and practices," she said. "As a result, it's far more efficient, fair and impactful to resolve these common issues for every similarly situated person, all at one time."

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