Criminal injustice
April 10, 2018

About 1,300 people have been held in local jails in Louisiana for at least four years without trial or conviction, the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association reports. Another 70 have been held for five years or longer. These long pretrial detentions have become so common they are now a budget issue for some sheriff's offices, said the association's executive director, Michael Ranatza.

Causes for the detentions vary, but inability to afford bail is a leading factor, as it is elsewhere in the country. In New York City, for example, about 3,800 people — half the total jail population — are held in local lockup at any given moment because, though they are not deemed a risk to public safety, they do not have the money for bail.

"Cash bail insidiously exacerbates our criminal justice system's class and racial disparities by creating a cascade of devastating effects for poor people and their families who often lose jobs, homes, and even their children before a court even considers their guilt or innocence," argues California's Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), an advocate of bail reform.

The Sixth Amendment promises the right to a speedy trial in America, and in Louisiana that is held to mean 120 days for a felony charge and 30 days for a misdemeanor unless a judge approves an extension. "Obviously four years is a gross violation of [constitutional] rights," said Bruce Hamilton of the Louisiana ACLU. "This is huge problem in Louisiana and it is a problem nationally." Bonnie Kristian

September 19, 2017

In the summer of 2007, an Alabama man named Kharon Davis was arrested on charges of capital murder and placed in county jail to await trial. He was 22, and his only previous offense was driving without a license.

Today, as The New York Times reported Tuesday in a deep dive into Davis' case and the problem of lengthy pre-trial detention more broadly, Davis is still in that county jail, still awaiting trial. He has now served half Alabama's minimum murder sentence without any conviction.

The causes for this egregious delay are many. Davis himself has exacerbated the situation by replacing his court-appointed legal team, but he is far from holding sole responsibility. One of his defense attorneys, for example, was the father of an officer investigating his case. He filed just two motions on Davis' behalf in the four years it took for the district attorney to suggest a conflict of interest was in play.

"The court has to gain control of the case and not let it petrify," Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, told the Times. "This is like a railroad saying, 'This is an awful train wreck.' Well, the train belongs to the railroad."

For Davis, the Times notes, there finally may be a light at the end of the tunnel: Jury selection for his trial began Monday. Bonnie Kristian

December 30, 2016

An investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found that Ville Platte, Louisiana, routinely holds people in jail without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In fact, the DOJ reports, local law enforcement often "use investigative holds where they lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest, but instead have a 'hunch' or 'feeling' that a person may be involved in criminal activity." One sheriff's officer described personally jailing people based solely on his possession of "a pretty good feeling" or "gut instinct."

These investigative holds last "for 72 hours and sometimes longer," and the individuals jailed are "strip-searched, placed in holding cells without beds, toilets, or showers, and denied communication with family members and loved ones." In one case cited in the report, a woman taken into custody was strip-searched, required to remove her tampon, and jailed overnight without access to sanitary products. She was not suspected of having any involvement in the robbery about which she was questioned.

All told, law enforcement in Ville Platte conducted about 900 arrests and holds between 2012 and 2014 alone — potentially affecting more than 10 percent of the town's 7,000 people — that were "not even ostensibly supported by probable cause." The DOJ report recommends a number of reforms to the local police and sheriff's offices to address these patterns and will continue to work with both departments to ensure changes are pursued. Bonnie Kristian

December 24, 2016

A Louisiana appeals court this week tossed out a sentence of life without parole given to a man named Walter Johnson for stealing $15 from a bait vehicle set up by police to catch petty thieves.

Johnson was given a life sentence because of a "three strikes" sentencing law in his state. He has three prior convictions for nonviolent crimes — two drug charges and one burglary — so his fourth conviction escalated what would otherwise have been a minor punishment to a mandatory minimum of life in prison.

The "sentence imposed on Mr. Johnson is 'legal' in the sense that it falls within the statutory range," wrote Judge Paul Bonin in the appeals decision. "Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive" given the "triviality" of Johnson's crime and the lack of violence in his criminal history.

Johnson's successful appeal did not overturn the habitual offender law which mandated his life sentence, meaning it may still be applied to others in similar circumstances. Bonnie Kristian

July 17, 2016

A man named Percy Brown has filed suit against police and city officials in Louisville, Kentucky, after spending more than seven years in prison awaiting trial for a number of charges which have since been entirely dismissed.

Brown was arrested in 2008 in connection with a 2004 murder and was not released until April of this year. His lawsuit alleges that he was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial and framed by police, who ignored the receipts he had to prove his alibi of gambling at a casino 70 miles away when the murder took place. The family of the victim, 19-year-old Jennifer Nicole French, have come to agree that Brown is not guilty.

"It pains me to revisit some of things I endured while I was there," Brown said as he filed his suit. "It is a broken system that needs to be overhauled from top to bottom." Bonnie Kristian

April 22, 2016

On Tuesday, Nebraska got rid of civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that allows police to confiscate people's money and stuff without ever charging them with a crime. Other states, however, aren't so lucky.

As this map from The Washington Post shows, Nebraska is just the tenth state to require a conviction for property confiscation — which means that in the other 40 states, police can still take money and property from innocent people.

(Washington Post)

If you're subject to civil asset forfeiture, it's often very difficult to get your cash or property returned, because you personally are not accused of anything, so you have no right to an attorney and limited legal recourse. And we're talking a lot of money: In 2014, for instance, police took more from Americans using civil asset forfeiture than actual burglars did. Bonnie Kristian

December 2, 2015

Leaked documents obtained by the Alabama Justice Project reveal that, since the mid-1990s, members of the Dothan, Alabama police department's narcotics investigation team have been planting drugs and weapons on young black men. The revelation came to light when a group of anonymous officers from the Dothan Police Department handed over documents from an internal investigation that had not been reported to federal or state officials, and that was later "covered up by the district attorney," according to the Henry County Report.

Black defendants began issuing complaints of evidence planting as early as 1996, and when the incidents were finally addressed within the department two years later, most of the officers asked about the incidents reportedly failed a polygraph test. The officers responsible for leaking the documents told the Henry County Report they believe that the evidence planting has likely resulted in "nearly a thousand wrongful convictions."

The narcotics officers involved in targeting young black men were reportedly part of a "a Neoconfederate organization" that has "advocated for blacks to return to Africa [and] published that the civil rights movement is really a Jewish conspiracy and that blacks have lower IQ's," Henry County Report reveals. Two of the three officers supervising the team, Lt. Steve Parrish, current Dothan police, and Sgt. Andy Hughes, the assistant director of Homeland Security for the State of Alabama, were reportedly in leadership positions in the Neoconfederate group.

The group of officers that leaked the documents have informed the federal authorities and the U.S. Attorney.

Read the full story at the Henry County Report. Becca Stanek

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