Louisiana chief justice urges courts to find alternatives to jail amid COVID-19 concerns

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson is asking district judges to minimize the number of people in parish jails in hopes of restricting the spread of COVID-19.

In a letter issued Thursday, Johnson urged judges to work with prosecutors, public defenders and sheriffs to conduct a “risk-based assessment of all detainees.”

For those charged with misdemeanor crimes other than domestic abuse battery, she favors a “nominal bail amount” or release with an order to appear in court at a future date. For those convicted of a misdemeanor, judges should consider a release with supervised probation, Johnson says.

Johnson suggests reducing bail obligations for people charged with a nonviolent offenses. For other types of charges, courts still could “re-examine the nature of the offense and criminal history, if any, to determine if any bail revisions are appropriate.”

Johnson says judges should confer with the Department of Probation and Parole to consider alternatives to detention for parole violations. And she urges law enforcement to consider issuing summons and citations for misdemeanors and nonviolent offenses in lieu of arrest.

The ACLU of Louisiana applauded Johnson’s requests, which are consistent with the organization’s call to reduce prison and jail populations to protect public health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Public health experts have been warning that our prisons and jails could become powder kegs of this disease, putting additional strain on our hospitals and endangering millions of lives,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana’s executive director.