Decreasing Prison Populations Due to COVID-19
JAC is committed to decreasing prison populations statewide and our normal sense of urgency was multiplied by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout this time JAC has amplified pressure on state and local officials to decrease prison populations by releasing non-violent offenders, those set to be released and ready for re-entry, and working with Orleans coalition members to encourage police to issue summonses where possible instead of arrests.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Orleans Police Department began "informational checkpoints" where they would directly interact in close spaces with citizens. JAC and community advocates reached out to the Consent Decree Monitor to highlight our concerns about how these traffic stops were being conducted and concerns for unnecessary tickets, fines, fees, and arrests. One day after our letter was sent, NOPD stopped their "informational" checkpoints.
In this letter we highlighted the DOC's planned solution to COVID-19 ran contrary to public health experts' recommendation. We also encouraged the DOC to use some of the $9.7 million in already available federal funding that could be used to facilitate the individual assessment, release, supervision, electronic monitoring, and/or home confinement options for prisoners.
Succeeded in Advocating to Baker and Zachary Judges:
JAC and other community advocates wrote to Baker and Zachary Judges compelling them to release all municipal holds. Or request was in light of several COVID-19 infections reported and in hopes of preventing an outbreak. In response Zachary Courts released everyone booked in their jails within the last two weeks. This work could not have been done without the efforts of community advocates within East Baton Rouge. In Baker, all holds were lifted and RORs were authorized instead of monetary bonds for all cases except domestic violence. Read the Baker letter here. Read the Zachary letter here.
JAC along with Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children has advocated for the release of detained juveniles who are at increased risk of COVID exposure. We joined community members in calling for the release of all juveniles in detention along with calling on our elected officials to stop arresting juveniles for normal adolescent behavior, non-violent crimes along with misdemeanors and technical violations, provide medical care, and transitioning education plans.
JAC and the ACLU Louisiana have called on the governor to release incarcerated people due to the imminent threat they face in close quarters because of COVID-19. This is especially important for communities of color as they are more likely to be incarcerated and are representing higher rates of death from the virus. You can sign on to tell Governor Bel Edwards to protect our incarcerated community members health by decreasing prison populations here.
JAC and community advocates wrote to judges, the governor, and mayor of New Orleans to dramatically decrease inmate populations in hopes of decreasing the likelihood of a COVID outbreak in detention facilities. The letter called for the immediately release of people who are being held pretrial who fall into the high-risk categories defined by the CDC, people held for outstanding fines and fees, people arrested for misdemeanor offenses, people arrested for a non-violent crime that, under Louisiana statute, would not require a mandatory prison sentence if convicted, and people who are detained on a probation or parole hold, based on an arrest for a non-violent crime for which they would not be mandated to serve a prison sentence if convicted, and who are otherwise in compliance with the terms of their probation or parole.
Following CDC Guidelines, JAC and community advocates have extended a hand out to all Louisiana Sheriffs and offered alternative solutions to their plan to relocate incarcerated populations to Angola. Angola is poorly equipped to provide medical help, including ventilators, to a population that is at a heightened risk of a COVID-19 breakout and a prison facility that is 60 miles away from the nearest hospital.
We ask ALL concerned citizens to email the Sheriff Departments listed in our letter. You can copy and paste the Sheriff Departments in this word document into an email.
Please note the following Sheriff Department emails are non-functioning: Jefferson Parish; Washington Parish; Assumption Parish; LaSalle Parish; Vernon Parish; Orleans Parish; St. Tammany Parish; Red River Parish; West Baton Rouge Parish. Below are their fax or phone numbers where they can be reached:
Jefferson Parish: 504-363-5500 (Phone)
Washington 985-839-6581 (Fax)
Assumption Parish: 985-369-1395 (Fax)
LaSalle Parish: 318-992-2155 (Fax)
Vernon Parish: 337-238-4987 (Fax)
Orleans Parish: 504-202-9280 (Fax)
St. Tammany Parish: 985-809-7676
West Baton Rouge Parish: 225-344-1004 (Fax)
Red River Parish: 318-932-6651 (Fax)
As COVID cases continued to sky rocket in Louisiana, JAC and community advocates have worked hard to ensure that all citizens are kept safe from this potentially fatal disease. As police departments attempt to conduct business as usual, we have called on the City of New Orleans to stop arresting citizens for misdemeanors and non-violent offenses to keep jail populations low and decrease the risk of spreading the disease.
Prisoner Healthcare Advocacy
JAC is committed to decreasing prison populations statewide but those who remain incarcerated face a prison healthcare system that is underprepared for a pandemic. JAC has advocated to ensure that those who remain incarcerated have access to quality healthcare and not treated like second class citizens. We continue to monitor health treatment incarcerated people while also advocating for independent oversight and evidenced based practices.
JAC and community advocates are calling on the governor to create independent oversight of jails, prisons, and detention centers during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that facilities can provide reliable and quality health care. This oversight committee should also provide recommendations to improve care of incarcerated people. We are also supporting VOTE's action items that request release of incarcerated people within 6 months of their release, medical parole for those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, provide masks and gloves for all staff and those who will remain, enforcement of basic medical standards and sharing relevant health information with family members.
As the momentum and spread of COVID became evident, JAC and community advocates urged the Governor to use science and evidenced based practices to decrease the likelihood of a COVID breakout in jails and DOC facilities. We specifically asked the governor to follow CDC guidelines, educate staff and the incarcerated on COVID prevention strategies, keep infected people out of facilities, require the DOC to lift and cease probation and parole hearings when the individual does not pose a risk to the community, prioritize releasing older adults, medically frail, and children from custody, immediate release of those who do not pose a risk to the community, create plans for staff shortages, provide free hygiene supplies to those in custody, implement screening and testing strategies, waive medical co-pays, notify family members of health status of incarcerated loved ones, avoid lockdowns, allow access to communication to family and legal counsel, and maintain data on infection rates among other suggestions.
As the concern for incarcerated individuals continues to increase Disability Rights Louisiana, along with JAC and other organizations, joined together to call on state officials to implement objective standards of care and practices. A state wide objective system would ensure that medically available resources are distributed equally and that disabled individuals are not discriminated against when given medical attention.
Economic Justice Advocacy
Prior to COVID-19 Louisiana had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Unfortunately the Louisiana economy, which is supported by energy jobs like oil refineries and industries like hospitality that is dependent on tourism, has been devastated by COVID-19. This economic pain is felt even more so by formerly incarcerated individuals who are trying to re-enter society and land back on their feet with an economy that has little to no jobs to offer. JAC has continued to advocate on economic justice issues to a different government actors to show how our state can equitably recover, stop the imposition of fines and fees, stop license suspensions, and remove barriers to federal relief.
JAC commented on New Orleans’ 2019 Annual Action Plan (AAP) to allocate Entitlement and CARES ACT grants related to housing and business assistance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. JAC provided comments arguing it was critical for the City to include “individuals with criminal records” in its definition of marginalized communities in New Orleans and provide funding and opportunities to address the specific needs of this population because of increased scrutiny and discrimination formerly incarcerated people face.
JAC and other advocates called upon the SBA to end their rules that make people ineligible for loan support if they are presently incarcerated, or on probation or parole, or subject to criminal charges. We also wrote to the SBA arguing against making people ineligible if in the last year they have 1) been convicted; 2) pleaded guilty; 3) pleaded nolo contendere; 4) been placed on pretrial diversion; or 5) been placed on any form of parole or probation (including probation before judgment) in a felony case. Our coalition wrote that these requirements are needlessly restrictive and unfairly discriminatory.
JAC, along with local partners, advocated to New Orleans courts to align eviction courts with the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act eviction protections. The CARES Act offers more protections than Louisiana state eviction law current provides. Those who live in nearly all properties that participate in federal subsidy programs (including Housing Choice Voucher or “Section 8” program, public housing, Low Income Housing Tax Credit properties, Permanent Supportive Housing, etc.), and renters who live in properties with federally backed mortgages are protected by the CARES Act from eviction for nonpayment, charging late fees, or issuing a notice to vacate for any reason until July 25th. It also requires all notices to vacate to provide 30 days before filing for eviction, which effectively prohibits eviction filings until August 24th.
JAC along with state advocates have created a step-by-step road to recovery roadmap for the Governor. This recovery plan touches upon a variety of areas including criminal and juvenile justice, housing, employment, environmental justice, and employment among other areas. Our state's economy and way of life has been devastated by this pandemic. JAC and our community allies stand ready to help the state of Louisiana rebound and thrive again.
The Small Business Administration's ("SBA") COVID-19 Federal Relief was intended to provide funding to help support small businesses that have closed as a result of the pandemic. However, the policy disqualifies individual business owners who have arrests or prior criminal records. JAC along with several national advocacy organizations have written to Congress that these policies be removed as they are not aligned with current SBA policies and are contrary to the purpose of the law.
JAC and community advocates reached out to the Governor's office advocating for changes to the state's unemployment insurance. Specifically we asked the governor to waive the minimum base earnings of $1,200, waive the current formula that calculates the weekly state benefit amount in favor of a flat rate of $370 a week, which is the national average, and enact worksharing to help employers avoid mass layoffs and would keep more people connected to employment during the recession.
Given the pandemic and business closures, JAC and community advocates requested that the governor implement a statewide policy that would stop the collection of Juvenile Fines and Fees. Our letter also requested that the governor discharge all outstanding collections.
JAC joined nationwide advocates in calling on states to immediately stop suspending licenses for drivers for reasons other than driver safety. In the letter we call on state departments of motor vehicles to also reinstate licenses that are currently suspended for reasons other than safety. We draw attention to the issue that paying fines and fees can result in driver license suspensions forcing low-income citizens to take public transportation during the COVID crisis.