Unconstitutional Bail System Faces Legal Challenges in Louisiana
December 15, 2020
The Fair Fight Initiative, in partnership with the MacArthur Justice Center and Advancement Project National Office, brought a lawsuit against East Baton Rouge officials to bring an end to the unconstitutional cash bail system in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison (EBRPP). The partners filed the suit on behalf of four people held at EBRPP because they cannot afford bail.
More than 80 percent of the 1,400 people being held at EBRPP are incarcerated without a guilty verdict. The lawsuit argues that the cash bail policies at EBRPP create an unlawful system of wealth-based incarceration and violate the Fourteenth Amendment by denying them equal protection and due process under the law. The strict enforcement of cash-based release does not consider people’s ability to pay nor offer non-financial alternatives. As such, people are effectively being jailed because they’re too poor to buy their way out.
“Many clients over the past five years have lost loved ones while they were incarcerated at EBRPP,” David Utter, Executive Director of the Fair Fight Initiative, acknowledged. “What they know all too well is that any time spent in EBRPP is unsafe and can even be fatal. The idea that people who have not been found guilty must be held in EBRPP because they can’t put up bail is a disgrace.”
The suit was filed after the death of Marcus Morris, 61, on December 6, 2020. Morris’s bail was set at $5,800 for misdemeanor crimes. Including Morris, 44 people have died at EBRPP since 2012—more than double the national average. Representatives from the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition cite disastrous failures by Correct Health, a privately held prison healthcare provider, as part of the problem. They are advocating for the city to terminate the contract.
“People should be innocent until proven guilty,” said Eric Foley, a MacArthur Justice Center attorney. “Unless they’re a public safety threat, they should not be in prison. But, in East Baton Rouge, poverty is a crime. Bail amounts are set by judges in the 19th JDC without any regard for individuals’ ability to pay, flight risk, or threat to the community, not to mention alternate options to cash. We’re proud to be part of this suit as it upholds a foundational democratic principle that wealth shouldn’t be a condition of freedom.”
Statements from the people represented in the suit—Blaze Franklin, Joshua Ryan, Herbert Scully, and Amisar Cyrus Nourani—tell of the cruel ambivalence on the part of the parish’s criminal justice system. Legal officials set unrealistic cash bonds for each of them without considering their circumstances, thus exposing them to unnecessary violence in EBRPP. Blaze Franklin is currently fighting stage IV prostate cancer and has not been provided any treatment for his critical illness, now metastasizing on his bones. Joshua Ryan is immunocompromised and reports that EBRPP continually fails to take proper precautions to safeguard inmates from COVID-19. Herbert Scully suffers from injuries that have been debilitating. And Amisar Cyrus Nourani has been the target of race-based physical and sexual violence as a Sufi Muslim.
In early 2020, the Advancement Project National Office sued the EBRPP for failing to protect pretrial detainees from COVID-19. The suit claims that EBRPP is endangering people held there by failing to follow basic health procedures like wearing masks, social distancing, and denying detainees access to functional toilets, sinks, and showers.
“These officials choose to incarcerate people for poverty every day, knowing full well that they could use common sense and keep fellow citizens safe,” said Tiffany Yang, Staff Attorney at the Advancement Project National Office. “Misdemeanor charges amount to a death sentence for people like Marcus Morris.”
Immoral cash bail systems create rigid cycles of poverty and incarceration, especially for people of color who are targeted at a higher rate than their white counterparts. The Fair Fight Initiative, MacArthur Justice Center, and Advancement Project National Office are proud to stand together against the unacceptable, unconstitutional system of criminalizing poverty.
Contact: David Utter, Executive Director
410 E Bay St. Savannah, GA 31401 • Phone: (912) 236-9559 • Fax: (912) 236-1884 • https://www.fairfightinitiative.org/