The New York Times and Reuters recently reported a finding by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)  that the Louisiana Department of Corrections is detaining inmates well past their legal release date.

In a statement, the DOJ says it “has concluded there is reasonable cause to believe that the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDOC) routinely confines people in its custody past the dates when they are legally entitled to be released from custody, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The agency noted three specific conclusions from its investigation:

  • Offenders were denied their right to a timely release from incarceration.
  • The department has failed, repeatedly, to implement policies and procedures that would prevent the majority of cases of overdetention.
  • The department “is deliberately indifferent to the systemic overdetention of people in its custody. For more than 10 years, LDOC has been on notice of its overdetention problem and has failed to take adequate measures to ensure timely releases of incarcerated individuals from its custody.”

In the study, the DOJ found that of the 4,135 offenders released from prison from January 2022 to April 2022, 26.8%, or 1,108 people, were held past their release date. Of this amount, 24%, or 266, were held 90 days or more. This cost the state nearly $850,000 in that one quarter alone. Annualized, this level of overdetention will cost the state at least $2.5 million if not corrected.

The investigation also noted that the Department of Corrections has known about this issue for more than a decade and has failed to take proper and prompt action. These inadequacies were reported in a Six Sigma report in 2012 and two legislative audit reports in 2017 and 2019. Not to mention the numerous lawsuits that the formerly incarcerated have filed against the department over that same period, costing the state additional untold millions.

What is causing the problem? It is clear that the department is aware of its shortcomings, which appear to stem from three main problems:

  • The information technology (IT) systems that are used to track the data are 30-40 years old, and in many instances, data are still tracked on paper.
  • Sentencing laws and “good time” rules are constantly changing, and rarely retroactive, so in many cases, the sentence length needs to be calculated by hand because the old IT systems are inadequate.
  • There is constant miscommunication and delays between the judicial system, the corrections department, and the sheriff’s offices that house these offenders.

How can this get fixed?

The department has received funding to upgrade its IT system at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $15 million. The funding and the project began in 2019, and the agency hopes to get the first module of the system up and running this year. This should help reduce paper shuffling and hand calculations to reduce the number of errors. But there remains a communications issue with the sheriff’s departments and the judicial system that still uses paper in the U.S. Postal Service to deliver release orders.

In December, the New York Times spoke to a person who was incarcerated past their release date about their experience. Later that month, Clementine Jacoby, the executive director of Recidiviz, a technology nonprofit that works with nearly a dozen state corrections departments to address data problems, wrote a letter to the editor in response to the article. She noted that the problem isn’t unique to Louisiana; it’s widespread. With the combination of outdated systems and labor-intensive, error-prone tasks, it’s no wonder thousands of people slip through the cracks each year. Jacoby also mentioned, “Business leaders have modern data tools that can track what’s happening in real-time. Why can’t government leaders, who are running core institutions with taxpayer dollars, do the same?”

In addition to upgrading its IT system, which is in progress, the LDOC is engaging in productive talks with other potential partners that have offered to assist with these challenges and automate much of the workload. If successful, this work will increase accuracy, expedite work to be done to prepare for prisoners’ release back into society, restore faith in the agency’s ability and commitment to manage its affairs and honor individual rights, and make this type of report the last of its kind in our state.