Earlier this month, Calcasieu Parish, La., public defender Harry Fontenot sent a letter to judges and the district attorney’s office arguing for the release of nonviolent offenders from the parish jail to prevent the spread of covid-19. Judges, prosecutors and court staff held a meeting March 16 to discuss the matter. Defense attorneys were not invited. But just before the gathering, 14th Judicial District Court Judge David Ritchie sent a text to some of the attendees outlining his thoughts on the matter. A source shared the text with me. It reads:

I want to know what was considered by those who agreed that “under the circumstances” it is a good idea to release the nonviolent prisoners from the [Calcasieu Correctional Center], other than Harry’s email from last week. Who is this intended to help? As we all should know, the members of this particular population are overwhelmingly drug addicts who have the worst hygiene of anyone in the community, other than the mentally ill. Right now, they are realistically quarantined in jail. I assume that none of you called the jail to find out if it was necessary or advisable to take this action, since I called [CCC warden Chris] Domingue and he wasn’t aware of any such contact. He told me that they have implemented protocols to do their best to make sure Corona doesn’t enter the CCC, which includes screening people as they are booked in, not allowing visitors, etc. The drug addicts will be right back out using and stealing and getting rearrested, which is much more likely to introduce the virus into the jail and spread it in the community. I’ll have more to say at the meeting, but it makes no sense at all, if the purpose is supposed to be to prevent the spread of Corona.

Two people have confirmed that they received this text from Ritchie. Both sources, who requested that they not be identified, said that Ritchie reiterated these comments at the meeting, almost verbatim. One said Ritchie’s comments shocked many of those present. “There was a pause in the room. I think we were all surprised to hear a judge talk about people that way.” Ritchie’s office did not respond to a voice mail and email requesting comment.

“This judge seems to have said the quiet part out loud,” said Rachel Elise Barkow, a New York University School of Law professor and author of “Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration.” “Some of us suspect and fear judges are locking up people who they think are generally undesirable without really thinking about the danger of future crime, and this judge made it explicit.”

Even if Ritchie’s blanket, offensive characterization of drug users and the mentally ill were true (and of course not all people arrested for drug possession are “addicts”), it wouldn’t be a legally valid reason to keep them in jail. “When the Supreme Court upheld allowing dangerousness to be part of the bail determination, it specifically focused on the danger of future crime,” Barkow said. “If the notion of dangerousness could include something like a defendant’s hygiene or propensity to get sick, we’d see our jails even more overflowing than they are now and the end of due process as we know it.”

Defendants in Calcasieu Parish already face a system that can keep them in jail for long stretches before even getting a hearing. Judges in the parish typically set bonds before defendants are assigned a public defender, which means there’s no one present to advocate for a lower bond or for release on personal recognizance. Judges also cycle between the criminal and civil courts, meaning the judge handling a particular case may not hold another criminal court session for weeks. Parish public defender Carla Edmondson told me that it isn’t unusual in, for example, a drug possession charge for a defendant to be incarcerated for weeks before getting a chance to challenge his or her bond. One client of hers spent three months in jail without a hearing, only to later have all of the charges dropped.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, there have been additional challenges. Jail visits have been suspended for the past week, which makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to communicate with clients. And judges are working from home, making them more difficult to reach.

Ritchie was the judge on duty last week in what’s locally called “72-hour court,” or the court that sets bonds, signs warrants and takes care of legal matters that can’t be postponed. Edmondson tried to file an omnibus motion to release 16 nonviolent offenders from the jail, citing the threat from the virus. Ritchie refused to sign the motion, or to even set a hearing. Edmondson then contacted the judge presiding over those cases at home and, two days later, won the release of 15 of the 16 defendants after conferencing with the new judge and a prosecutor.

On March 16, the ordered a postponement of jury trials. It has since ordered state courts to suspend nonemergency hearings and, as best they can, conduct emergency hearings via telephone or video conferencing. The courts in Calcasieu Parish are still transitioning. One defense attorney said her last hearing was in a courtroom with the prosecutor and judge, but her client appeared from the jail via video.

Currently the Calcasieu Parish jail is holding 1,085 people, just short of its 1,200 capacity. There have been no confirmed coronavirus cases, though there have been at other corrections facilities in the state. The sheriff’s department said it’s screening new arrivals at the jail, including taking their temperatures, and inmates are under a type of quarantine. But of course those infected with covid-19 can shed the virus before presenting with symptoms such as fever. ″You can’t socially distance in jail," Edmondson said. “By keeping people in there for nonviolent offenses, you’re sacrificing not just my clients, but their families, and corrections staff and their families.”

Meanwhile, arrests in the parish for low-level offenses haven’t stopped. In just the past several days a man was arrested on suspicion of criminal mischief, and multiple people were arrested on charges of drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia.

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