An informal survey by the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association revealed that nearly 1,300 people have been held in local jails for four years awaiting their trials. In addition, 70 people have been jailed for more than five years without having their cases heard.
“I think the number is actually higher,” Michael Ranatza, the group’s executive director, said after a budget hearing before state lawmakers on Monday, The Times-Picayune reported.
“I want you to understand that there are people in the state of Louisiana who have waited over five years to be tried in criminal court,” Ranatza continued. “There’s a higher number at the four-year level, about almost 1,200.”
Last month, the sheriff’s association counted how many people were stuck sitting in jail without going to trial or receiving a sentence. Ranatza said the problem has gotten so bad that it’s eating into the sheriff’s budget to house inmates.
Jay Dixon, Louisiana’s state public defender, said he was shocked at the number reported by the sheriff’s association, seeing as there are systems in place that automatically alerts lawyers if nothing has happened with a case over six months. Dixon said there are several factors that could force someone to remain in jail, including their inability to post bail.
Leaders with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana were also concerned by the long waits recorded by the sheriff’s group, though they acknowledged that people being held for too long is a pervasive, nationwide issue that needs to be addressed.
“This is a huge problem in Louisiana and it is a problem nationally,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney for the organization. Like Dixon, Hamilton pointed to the stringent rules on bail and the state’s lack of funding for public defenders as factors keeping the accused in local jails for years at a time.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused the right to a speedy trial, for which they can file a motion. In Louisiana, a defendant’s case would have commence within 120 days for someone in custody charged with a felony — or 30 days for a misdemeanor, The Times-Picayune reported. Only a judge can determine if a delay is justified.
“Obviously four years is a gross violation of [constitutional] rights,” Hamilton told the newspaper. “Without knowing the specific details of each case, I can’t tell you what rights are being violated in each case.”