According to a recent report released by Vera Institute of Justice, 90 percent of people sitting in Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans are “not serving a sentence but waiting for their day in court.”
The institute’s findings signal a court backlog appears to be one of many reasons Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in United States. Although New Orleans specifically has cut its prison population 54 percent in the last seven years, experts say the backlog is a troubling reality in cities across the country.
“We have 11 million admissions to jail each year around the country and that’s a tremendous amount of Americans that are churning through this system,” said Glenn E. Martin, founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA. “Most of them innocent and most of them who will ultimately be found innocent or have their charges dropped.”
The Vera Institute report, released last month, cites numbers from March, 2016. During that time, there were nearly 1600 people in Orleans Parish Prison “awaiting adjudication.”
In 2013, the National Institutes of Corrections revealed the state operates 132 jail and adult detention facilities, in them, 30,950 inmates. In 2014, 38,030 people were in prison in Louisiana.
The numbers give the state a not-so distinguished title of “the prison capital of the world,” following a report by The Times-Picayune which revealed Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China, and 20 times Germany’s.
“The phenomena that we see in the Louisiana jails is actually a microcosm of what we see on a larger scale all across the country.”
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So in New Orleans, Louisiana, they wait. Often, securing a court date can take six months to a year, in some cases five years, according to Martin’s research.
“What’s difficult about getting the court to take responsibility for overcrowding in jails, is [the] fact that no one person owns the responsibility,” Martin said. “And yet at the same time everyone owns the responsibility. So the judges will suggest that they have to wait until the prosecutor and the defense are ready and yet the prosecutor and the defense play a game of stopping the clock on speedy trial.”
Martin spent six years in New York State prison. Once he was released, he discovered the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution, in fact, it’s his organizations’ slogan.
JustLeadershipUSA has ambitious goals of reducing the incarceration population in half by 2030. He believes mass incarceration is a result of misguided polices in the American criminal justice system. In terms of Louisiana’s court backlog, Martin says much of has to do with money and resources.
Louisiana is not alone. Similar ‘backlog’ and overcrowding issues plague jails and prisons across the U.S, forcing major cities to take proactive steps to reduce populations. In 2015, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts reported there was a backlog of more than 330,000 civil cases in federal courts.
“You have poor people who are charged with crime, they get bail, and if you’re poor a $1,000 dollar bail might as well be million dollar bail,” Martin said. “The constitution says that people shouldn’t be held without access to speedy trial and that bail should not be a way to keep people in jail, it’s supposed to be a way to keep people from coming back to court, not to keep them incarcerated and yet it does quite the opposite, the punishment is in the process.”
Ashantai Hathaway is a reporter at theGrio. Keep up with her on Twitter @ashantaih83.