WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has found that Louisiana’s longstanding practice of detaining more than a quarter of its inmates beyond their court-ordered release dates violates the Constitution.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections “is deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody,” according to a copy of a report obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday. The report examined incarceration patterns of inmates held in state facilities and jails run by parishes, the state equivalent of county governments.
From January 2022 to April 2022, 27 percent of the people who were legally entitled to be released from state custody, some for minor crimes or first-time offenses, were held past their release dates. About 24 percent of those improperly detained had been held 90 days or longer past their release days, the Justice Department found.
Louisiana officials, who cooperated with federal investigators, are discussing a possible agreement with the Justice Department to overhaul the system. But the department, citing evidence uncovered by lawyers representing incarcerated people, concluded that the state has known about the problem for at least a decade and has done little to address it.
“There is an obligation both to incarcerated persons and the taxpayers not to keep someone incarcerated for longer than they should be,” Brandon B. Brown, a U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, said in a statement accompanying the report. “Timely release is not only a legal obligation, but arguably of equal importance, a moral obligation.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who heads the department’s civil rights division, said it was “the fundamental duty of the state to ensure that all people in its custody are released on time,” adding that she was ready to work with state officials “to institute long overdue reforms.”
In December, The Times reported that about 200 inmates are held beyond their legal release dates on any given month in Louisiana, amounting to 2,000 to 2,500 of the 12,000 to 16,000 prisoners freed each year.
The average length of additional time was around 44 days in 2019, according to internal state corrections data obtained by lawyers for inmates. Until recently, the department’s public hotline warned families that the wait could be as long as 90 days.
In most other states and cities, prisoners and parolees marked for immediate release are typically processed within hours — not days — although those times can vary, particularly if officials must make arrangements required to release registered sex offenders. But in Louisiana, the problem known as “overdetention” is endemic, often occurring without explanation, apology or compensation — an overlooked crisis in a state that imprisons a higher percentage of its residents than any other in most years.
The practice is also wasteful. It costs Louisiana taxpayers at least $2.8 million a year in housing costs alone, according to the Justice Department.