Chief Justice Johnson issues guidance to reduce prison population, increase public safety during COVID-19
Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson issued guidance to Louisiana District Judges on Thursday, April 2, urging to them conduct a comprehensive review to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and release incarcerated people under certain circumstances. The letter comes after a week of evolving news developments about COVID-19 positive cases in state corrections facilities.
The Louisiana Department of Corrections has reported that 14 employees and five incarcerated people have confirmed cases COVID-19. A third individual incarcerated at a federal prison in Oakdale has also succumbed to the disease. Orleans Parish Prison, East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, and Jefferson Parish Prison all have confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In order to reduce risk to staff, decrease the number of cases overall, and protect public health, Chief Justice Johnson urged that all district courts “conduct a comprehensive and heightened risk-based assessment of all detainees” and take the following actions:
- For those charged with misdemeanor crimes, other than domestic abuse battery, favor a nominal bail amount, or a release on recognizance order – with, of course, a notice to appear on a future date;
- For those convicted of a misdemeanor crime, consider a modification to a release and supervised probation or simply time-served;
- For those charged with a non-violent offense, consider a reduced bail obligation or a release on recognizance order with, of course, a notice to appear on a future date;
- For those charged in other criminal matters, re-examine the nature of the offense and criminal history, if any, to determine if any bail revisions are appropriate;
By comparison, Louisiana has taken very few steps to reduce the population in corrections facilities as a response to COVID-19 threat in prisons. A chart that shows what other states have done to protect public health by reducing prison populations is linked here.
Federal funding was made available a few days ago through Bureau of Justice Assistance formula grants that can be drawn down during this emergency to support justice system responses to COVID-19, including home confinement, pretrial release, and other jail alternatives. Louisiana is allocated $9.7 million for this purpose and would have to apply for the funding by May 29th. Cities, townships, and parishes could apply for an additional $5 million in funding (allocations ranging in size from $33,000 to $1 million depending on population).