Organization warns of post-Katrina breakdown of legal system with wrongly accused stuck in legal limbo

NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana today expressed grave concerns about measures contained in Governor John Bel Edwards’ executive order that would suspend legal deadlines for district attorneys to file charges against people who are held in jail. In a letter to the governor and the Louisiana Supreme Court, the organization asserted the move presents a “grave threat to fundamental civil rights” that would undermine public health and leave thousands of presumably innocent Louisianans to languish in jail in legal limbo. The ACLU of Louisiana called on courts to continue to honor legal timelines and uphold due process during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We understand the need to protect the public from this unprecedented pandemic, but these curbs on due process would leave thousands of presumably innocent Louisianans to languish in legal limbo while doing nothing to advance public health,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “Far from stemming the spread of this virus, these moves will result in more people confined in squalid conditions where they are at substantially greater risk of infection. It is critical that the governor and the Louisiana Supreme Court instruct courts to continue to conduct daily bail hearings and release from custody everyone who is not a danger to our community.” 

The organization noted that when similar measures were put in place following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it resulted in the widespread unlawful detention and widespread over-incarceration that was very difficult to rectify. 

“It’s important to remember that Louisiana tried this after Hurricane Katrina and the results were catastrophic, with thousands of people wrongly trapped in the legal system for months, and lawsuits against sheriffs and the state,” said Odoms Hebert. “We hope to work with the Governor and the Supreme Court to ensure that these emergency measures are implemented in a way that prevents us from repeating the terrible history of 2005 and protects the public from the coronavirus. It is possible to both protect individual rights and protect the public, and we hope to work together to do so.”

On Monday, the ACLU of Louisiana co-signed a letter demanding evidence-based plans for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in state prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities.  That letter is online here.