WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has found that Louisiana’s longstanding practice of detaining more than a quarter of inmates beyond their court-ordered release dates violates the Constitution and accused state officials of ignoring repeated calls to overhaul the unjust system.
The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections “is deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody,” according to a report on a yearlong investigation, released on Wednesday, that 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 leads the department’s civil rights division, added that Louisiana’s system also contributed to chronic racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system.
“In Louisiana, Black people represent 65 percent of the adult correctional population, while only representing 33 percent of the overall state population,” she added.
A spokesman for the official who runs the system, James M. Le Blanc, said the state corrections department was reviewing the report and was continuing to work with the Justice Department.
“Without a full review of the report’s findings and documentation supporting said findings, it would be a challenge to provide a comprehensive response at this time,” the spokesman said in an email.
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.
A coalition of prisoners’ rights groups has sued the state on behalf of prisoners who have been held past their release dates. Those suits are continuing on a separate track.
“We have known for a long time that the Louisiana D.O.C. is deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody,” said Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a nonprofit in New Orleans that has sued the state. “It’s egregious.”
Casey Denson, who is representing Johnny Traweek, a former prisoner in Orleans Parish who served 20 days past his release date, said the Justice Department action makes it more likely Louisiana will change its practices.
“It is clear that the state is unwilling, and unable, to fix it on its own,” she said.