Louisiana Chief Justice Calls on Courts to Reduce Jail Populations Amid Pandemic

April 3, 2020 Updated: April 3, 2020

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s chief justice has called on courts throughout the state to reduce inmate populations in parish jails in an effort to prevent the spread of the CCP virus.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote a letter to state district judges urging them to “safely minimize the number of people detained in jails where possible.” She asked the judges to work with prosecutors, public defenders, and sheriffs to conduct a “heightened risk-based assessment” of all detainees to see whether alternatives to jail would be a better option.

Johnson issued a set of guidelines that judges could consider, including a nominal bail amount or a release on recognizance order for people charged with misdemeanor crimes, other than domestic abuse battery; a modification to a release and supervised probation or time served for people convicted of a misdemeanor crime; a reduction in bail obligation or a release on a recognizance order for people charged with a non-violent offense; and to consider whether bail revisions are appropriate for others who have been charged in other criminal matters.

She also asked judges to suggest to law enforcement, whenever practicable, that they issue summons and citations for misdemeanor crimes and non-violent offense instead of arrest, with a notice to appear in the future.

“During this very challenging time, the health of thousands of people is dependent on you, the District Judges of Louisiana,” Johnson wrote (pdf).

Similarly, Tennessee’s Supreme Court chief justice has also been considering the reduction of the local jail population as a measure to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Chief Justice Jeff Bivins ordered judges in each district to submit a plan for a reduction in the local jail population and to work with “local law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders to review their local jail populations and make reductions when possible.”

“Reduction in local jail populations is a critical component in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Bivins said in a statement on March 25.

“There are low-risk, non-violent offenders who can safely be released and supervised by other means to reduce local jail populations. Judges, law enforcement, and attorneys must work together to identify and create an action plan to address this issue,” he added.

This comes during a time public health experts and advocacy groups are raising concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in state and federal prisons across the country. They say many prisons are overcrowded and inmates often have limited access to products such as hand sanitizer and soap.

In order to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons, several states have begun or have committed to releasing inmates, including in New York, Florida, and New Jersey. In federal prisons, the Bureau of Prisons said prisoners have begun a two-week confinement to their cells or quarters in order to stop the spread.

Attorney General William Barr is also considering releasing some older low-risk prisoners for home confinement in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in federal prisons.

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