District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

As the Orleans Parish Public Defenders office attempt to get as many people out of jail as possible amid the spread of the new coronavirus, prosecutors with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office are arguing against bond reductions for some defendants, saying in part that they will pose a “threat to the community” through the spread of the virus if released.

“If the defendant is released on bond during the Coronavirus outbreak and goes into public places, it will pose a threat to the general public by potentially spreading the virus to others and increasing the rate at which others are exposed to the virus,” prosecutors wrote in several court filings. The filings were provided to The Lens on the condition that names of defendants and attorneys not be published. 

Of the six cases reviewed by The Lens, two were for non-violent crimes

The District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Public defenders have argued that being in jail exposes defendants to a greater risk of being exposed to coronavirus. 

“People jailed in Orleans do not have the option of ‘social distancing’ from others who might be sick” they wrote in a letter last week to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office. “They live in close proximity to one another, sharing the same living space, showers, sinks and toilets. Separating sick people from well people to prevent the further spread of the disease is nearly impossible.” 

The motions filed by the prosecutors argue that defendants have failed to show that the “Orleans Justice Center is not taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of Coronavirus to its inmates. Moreover, the defendant has not provided any medical documentation that shows that he is immunocompromised or otherwise has an increased susceptibility to contracting the Coronavirus.”

In a statement to The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, Ken Daley, the spokesperson DA Leon Cannizzaro, was critical of the public defender’s efforts to reduce the jail population.

“It is disheartening that the Orleans Public Defenders would seek to exploit this public health emergency by asking our police and courts to turn a blind eye toward criminal conduct,” he said. “We review bond-reduction motions on a case-by-case basis, and oppose them when appropriate in the interest of public safety. This is hardly a time to encourage lawlessness.”

Despite opposition from the District Attorney’s Office, the effort by the public defender’s office to reduce the jail population appears to be working. As of Wednesday morning, the jail population was at 989, down from 1,045 last week, and the lowest in at least a decade. 

Last week, 31 prosecutors across the country issued a joint statement urging steps to decrease prison and jail populations amidst the coronavirus outbreak. “An outbreak of the coronavirus in these custodial facilities would not only move fast,” they wrote, “it would potentially be catastrophic.” 

“We believe that the current crisis creates an even more pressing need for elected prosecutors, public health officials, and other leaders to work together to implement concrete steps in the near-term to dramatically reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and the threat of disastrous outbreaks.” 

Phil Stelly, a spokesperson for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said today that there were no suspected cases of coronavirus in the jail, though to his knowledge no one had been tested. 

Last week, OPSO issued a public statement, along with protocols to employees to address the threat of the coronavirus in the New Orleans jail. 

“Our medical department, Wellpath, has developed a coronavirus screening, which includes asking all new arrestees or current inmates who exhibited fever in excess of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and who exhibited respiratory illness, several targeted questions surrounding their activities and interactions within the previous 14 days,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement issued March 11. 

The protocols, issued the following day to all employees, staff, and volunteers, dictate that detainees be asked whether or not they have travelled outside the U.S. in the last 30 days or come into contact with anyone who has travelled outside the U.S. in the last 30 days, “with an emphasis on China and other areas facing the most significant challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Though the first known cases of the virus came from China, New Orleans is well past the point at which international travel is a determining factor. So-called “community spread” has taken hold in the city, which has one of the highest per capita rates of coronavirus infection in the country. 

According to Stelly, the protocols are still in place as of today. He said there would be an update as those protocols are implemented as official policy, but he anticipated the changes would be “minor.”  When they were issued on March 12, there were 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Louisiana. As of today there were 257. 187 of those are in Orleans Parish. 

If a detainee answers affirmatively to either question regarding international travel, or if they are showing symptoms, they are given a facemask and taken to a designated isolation cell. 

The medical intake nurse will then contact the National Health Administrator (NHA), along with the Office of Public Health (OPH). OPH will then determine how to proceed with testing the patient. 

If the patient needs to be transported, the jail will go into a lock down. According to the Sheriff’s Office, no inmates are currently being transferred to state prisons, following a request from the Department of Corrections.

The protocols also contain a section pertaining to release of population reduction of inmates in order to decrease the jail population in accordance with past orders issued by the courts. It is unclear exactly which order the protocols are referring to, or if any are currently in place. 

In 2012, the Municipal, Traffic, and Criminal District Courts issued orders that would go into effect following an emergency declaration by the city, state, or country as a whole. The orders dictated the release of anyone detained on municipal offenses (with the exception of domestic violence and weapons charges), misdemeanor traffic offenses, fines and fees, contempt of court, or pre-trial state misdemeanors. 

Rob Kazik, the Judicial Administrator for Criminal District Court, said that the court’s 2012 order is no longer in effect. 

On Wednesday, the Orleans Parish Reform Coalition issued a letter to the New Orleans judges along with other city officials, urging them to enact a new en banc order that would release anyone being detained in the jail who is considered high-risk for coronavirus, anyone being held on a misdemeanor or non-violent charge that wouldn’t require prison time if convicted, along with those being held on probation or parole holds or failure to pay outstanding fines and fees. 

The letter was signed by over 30 organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the ACLU of Louisiana, and the Orleans Public Defenders. 

“In past emergencies, such as when a Category 3 storm has formed in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans has released people from OPP as a public safety measure,” the letter reads. “This pandemic is an emergency and requires the same amount of attention to preserve the safety of our community members.”

This story has been updated throughout the day.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...