Advocacy groups file lawsuit against EBR officials in hopes of defending impoverished Parish Prison detainees
BATON ROUGE - Three national criminal justice advocacy groups are aiming to protect impoverished individuals who've been arrested in East Baton Rouge Parish by means of a class action lawsuit that the groups have filed against judges in Louisiana's 19th Judicial District Court.
According to The Advocate, attorneys with the Fair Fight Initiative, MacArthur Justice Center and Advancement Project National Office banned together to file the lawsuit late Monday (Dec. 14).
The document claims the district's officials implement bail practices that discriminate against poor people, explaining that East Baton Rouge Parish Prison unnecessarily houses hundreds of people in pretrial detention simply because these individuals don't have the monetary means to pay bail.
"This system inflicts devastating harm on people solely because of their poverty and violates the most fundamental of American axioms," the lawsuit says. "That all people are equal under the law and are innocent until they are found guilty."
The lawsuit targets Judge Tarvald Smith, Judges Ronald Johnson and Bonnie Jackson, Commissioner Nicole Robinson and Bail Project Coordinator Frank Howze.
The Advocate notes that the three advocacy groups filed the lawsuit exactly one week after the death of a 61-year-old man who was arrested for a minor offense but remained behind bars due to an inability to pay bail. The man, identified as Marcus Morris and reportedly suffering from mental illness and homelessness, died while in custody at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.
According to The Advocate, Morris is the 44th person to die in the jail since 2012.
The lawsuit's plaintiffs describe cases that they feel are similar to Morris's. One plaintiff, for example, explains that they were homeless and unable to pay a bail amount, another says he was jailed while suffering from stage IV prostate cancer and fears that while languishing in jail due to an inability to pay bail, he's at risk of suffering mistreatment in regards to his condition.
An East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office representative issued a statement regarding the situation, explaining that both the sheriff and warden are "mandated by law to carry out the Judges’ orders. [They are] named in this suit due to their legal obligation to carry out these orders, though they have no legal authority or discretion in such determinations."
When it comes to dealing with judges, in the lawsuit the plaintiffs claim they attempt to explain their situation to judges and their requests are often quickly dismissed.
The lawsuit also mentions the condition of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, referring to the facility as "crumbling and decrepit," and especially unsafe due to the COVID-19 health crisis.
"In a recently filed case challenging the Jail’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a medical expert who inspected the facility described it as the worst jail he had ever seen in his 16-year career and as bad as a jail that was 100 years old," the lawsuit says.
Statistics indicate that bail bond amounts differ across the U.S., depending on the region's economy.
One bail bond website states that as of 2020 "If bodily injury or death occurs, the bail bond is set to $50,000 in California and $10,000 in most other areas where income levels tend to be lower. If no injury or death occurred, the amount drops to $5,000 in most states. The bail amount will be higher if alcohol or drugs were involved."