In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the legal maxim: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Nowhere is that more true than in Louisiana jails, where people can be held for extraordinary lengths of time – without ever being charged with a crime.
Earlier this week a Louisiana Senate committee passed House Bill 46, a bill that would reduce the amount of time people can be held in jail without charge. House Bill 46 seeks to shorten what’s called the “charging window,” or the length of time someone can be detained in jail before they must be charged with a crime or released.
While the bill had been watered down and will need to be strengthened as it moves through the process, the hearing was an important opportunity for Louisianians to speak out about the epidemic of pretrial incarceration that has destroyed countless lives.
Among those who testified testified was Linda Franks, whose son, Lamar, died four days after being arrested and jailed in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, one of the deadliest jails in the country. Lamar had been pulled over for having tinted windows, then arrested on a warrant for writing bad checks. The 27-year-old father had been on his way to pick up his grandmother from dialysis treatment.
While reducing the amount of time people can be incarcerated without charge may sound like a minor, technical change – it has the potential to have a life-changing and even life-saving impact on people caught up in our brutal and inhumane criminal legal system.
Reverend Alexis Anderson of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition told lawmakers: “The one thing God gave each of us was time; we don’t get a day more or a day less than what God gives us.” For the 46 families who have lost loved ones in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, “you can’t give them time back.”
For years, Louisiana’s pretrial incarceration crisis has destroyed lives and wasted taxpayer money – with little benefit to public safety. Under current law, Louisianians can spend weeks and even months behind bars without charge or conviction.
The ACLU of Louisiana’s report – Justice Can’t Wait – studied thousands of jail records over a two-year period, exposing a skyrocketing pretrial incarceration rate and staggering racial disparities. It confirmed that Louisiana has the highest pretrial incarceration rate in the country, jailing thousands of people without charge or conviction. Almost 60% of people jailed pretrial are arrested for non-violent offenses, like minor drug possession and unpaid citations. The racial disparities in this system are staggering, with Black people 2.3 times more likely than white people to be jailed following arrest.
Through our research, we spoke to many Louisianians whose lives had been forever altered by this unjust system. They had lost homes, cars, and businesses.
But the most valuable thing they lost was time, time with their children and loved-ones that they will never get back. 45 days, 30 days or even 15 days is far too long for any parent to be needlessly separated from their children.
Moving forward, it is crucial for legislators to strengthen House Bill 46 and make meaningful reforms to a system that has robbed countless families of their lives and livelihoods.
We can never bring back the lives lost to this crisis or restore the precious time it has taken, but lawmakers do have the power to prevent these tragedies in the future and restore the promise of “innocent until proven guilty.” They must use it.