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Louisianans Sue East Baton Rouge Judges, Sheriff Over Unconstitutional Bail System

Lawsuit aims to end cash bail system after another person dies awaiting trial at parish jail

Posted: Dec 15, 2020 8:45 AM

BATON ROUGE, LA – Last night, Fair Fight Initiative, MacArthur Justice Center and Advancement Project National Office sued East Baton Rouge officials in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, seeking to end the immoral and unconstitutional practice of wealth-based incarceration in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP). The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four individuals who are being held inside of EBRPP and are unable to afford their bail.

[CLICK HERE TO READ FULL COMPLAINT]

More than 1,400 people are currently incarcerated in EBRPP—approximately over 80% of whom are being held without a conviction. The lawsuit alleges that, by setting and strictly enforcing financial conditions for release without taking into account people’s ability to pay or considering non-financial alternatives, East Baton Rouge officials are effectively incarcerating hundreds of Louisianans for being too poor to pay for their freedom—a violation of their equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“For the past five years, I’ve been litigating on behalf of families who lost loved ones to this jail,” said David Utter, Executive Director of the Fair Fight Initiative. “What we’ve learned is that any amount of time in EBRPP is dangerous and far too often deadly. The notion that people merely accused of a crime can be held in EBRPP simply because they cannot afford cash bail should outrage us all.”

The lawsuit follows the Dec. 6 death of Marcus Morris, a 61-year old who was reportedly being held on a $5,800 bond for alleged misdemeanor offenses. Morris is the 44th person to have died in the jail since 2012—an alarming rate of death that is more than twice the national average. Local advocates from the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition have pointed to Mr. Morris’s death as yet another catastrophic failure by CorrectHealth, the jail’s current health care provider. The Coalition is urging the city to terminate CorrectHealth’s contract, which is currently up for review.

“When people are arrested they are presumed innocent,” said Eric Foley, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center Louisiana. “They should not be locked up awaiting trial unless there is a very compelling public safety reason to hold them in jail. And yet, in East Baton Rouge, many people are currently incarcerated simply because they cannot pay for their freedom. Judges in the 19th JDC set money bond without appropriate consideration of an individual’s circumstances, like whether a person can afford it, whether that person is a flight risk or presents a danger to others, or if there are better options for release that aren’t conditioned on payment. As in other bail suits we’ve filed in Louisiana and elsewhere, we’re honored to represent plaintiffs who seek to vindicate the bedrock principle that low-income people have the same right to pretrial liberty as wealthy people.”

The sworn testimony of the four plaintiffs—Joshua Ryan, Blaze Franklin, Amisar Cyrus Nourani and Herbert Scully—reveals the callous indifference of the city/parish’s criminal legal system. In each case, Baton Rouge officials failed to consider the plaintiffs’ individual circumstances before setting and enforcing unaffordable cash bonds, subjecting them to brutal and dangerous circumstances inside of EBRPP because they could not afford to post bail: Amisar Cyrus Nourani, a Sufi Muslim, has been the target of physical and sexual violence as well as racist attacks based on his religious beliefs; Blaze Franklin, who is currently battling stage IV prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones, has been provided with no treatments for his advanced diagnosis; and Herbert Scully, who is suffering from disabling injuries, and Joshua Ryan, who has an illness that compromises his immune system, have reported that the jail is failing to take basic precautions to protect inmates from COVID-19 exposure.

Earlier this year, EBRPP officials were sued by Advancement Project National Office and its partners over their failure to take basic and necessary steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the jail. The lawsuit alleged that officials were subjecting pretrial detainees to a significant and unnecessary risk of injury and death; declarations included in the lawsuit suggest that, at the height of the pandemic, jail officials continue to endanger incarcerated people by eschewing basic public health best practices, including mask wearing, maintaining social distance, and facilitating access to working personal hygiene facilities such as toilets and showers.

“Let’s be clear: criminalizing poverty through cash bail is a choice. Every day, Baton Rouge officials choose not to exercise discretion and provide non-financial conditions for release; instead, they choose to incarcerate and endanger members of the community for being unable to afford their freedom,” said Tiffany Yang, Staff Attorney at the Advancement Project National Office. “For dozens of people like Marcus Morris, being accused of a crime in East Baton Rouge was effectively a death sentence.”

Cash bail systems like East Baton Rouge’s lock individuals and families into a cycle of poverty and debt—particularly Black and Brown people, who are already disproportionately targeted by the criminal legal system and often lack economic resources as a result. That’s why Advancement Project National Office, MacArthur Justice Center, and Fair Fight Initiative are fighting for an end to the unconscionable, unconstitutional practice of wealth-based incarceration in Louisiana and nationwide.

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