Civil rights probe launched into Louisiana habit of holding prisoners past their release dates

The problem costs prisoners time with their families and it costs taxpayers who pay millions to keep men in jail when they should be out.

Federal authorities have launched a civil rights investigation into Louisiana’s persistent problems in failing to release state prison inmates once they have completed their sentences.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday it is looking at why so many state inmates are held beyond their release dates, a problem that costs taxpayers millions of dollars a year and inmates chunks of time they can never recapture.

“Missed holiday, missed birthdays, missed Christmases, missed Thanksgivings, family time that these people will never get back,” said attorney William Most, who has represented several inmates held beyond their sentences.

The state’s problems in calculating release dates can force inmates to spend anywhere from a few extra days or weeks behind bars to more than a year.

Johnny Traweek, for example, was locked up on a simple battery conviction in New Orleans before attorneys were able to secure his release 20 days after his sentence ended in May 2018.

“I gave everything I had, even toothpaste, soap, everything,” he said. “I’m thinking, man how can this happen? I ain’t done nothing. I’m free. How could they do this?”

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Some mistakes lead to far more profound hardships, such as the calculation error that led to a life sentence being issued to Jamal Cox as a multiple offender after he logged three non-violent felonies. If the dates of his offenses had been calculated correctly, his sentence would have been capped at three years. Instead, he served 10 years before the error was corrected and he gained his freedom from Angola state prison in March 2020.

According to calculations by the state Department of Corrections, the cost to Louisiana taxpayers for the extended prison stays has been calculated in the millions of dollars per year.

An internal DOC audit in 2012 showed that more than 2,000 inmates were held an average of 71 days beyond their release dates.

The problems is not just a burden for inmates. Taxpayers shell out more than $3.6 million annually to care for inmates beyond their release dates, according to the 2012 report.

Despite efforts to do better in recent years, the department in 2017 pegged the costs of over-detainees at $2.8 million dollars for housing alone, not even considering medical and other costs. That figure doesn’t take into account payments by the state to settle multiple lawsuits filed over the past few years by over-incarcerated inmates.

“The Department of Corrections has known since at least 2012, they’re holding thousands, thousands of people past their release date each year,” Most said.

In the WWL-TV investigative series “Left Behind,” New Orleans Criminal Court Judge Laurie White, also chair of the Louisiana Sentencing Commission, described how outdated technology and poor communication is at the heart of the problem.

“I call it the abacus and full moon method,” she said. “Apparently you have to have a couple of people who have to sort through it. Almost like some sort of medieval calculation.”

State Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has acknowledged the difficulties without offering much in the way of solutions. He said much of the problem stems from lack of coordination between DOC, parish clerks of court and parish lockups, where about 50 percent of state inmates complete their time.

“Changes are clearly required and we can agree that no person should be held beyond his or her proper release date,” LeBlanc told a legislative committee in 2019.

In an emailed statement Friday, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections wrote that the agency “looks forward to fully cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOC takes this very seriously, and will assist in whatever way necessary in this investigation.”

Most hopes the federal probe forces the state to take immediate action.

“This should be the easiest thing to fix in the system because these are the people who should not even be in prison,” Most said.

The state’s three U.S. Attorneys’ offices will join in the civil rights investigation.

Civil rights probes such as this often result on consent agreements overseen by federal judges, such as the consent decree currently guiding reforms at the New Orleans Police Department.

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