The Orleans Justice Center. (Michael Stein/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office (OPSO) has released 23 detainees who were being held on minor charges at the New Orleans jail, according to a Thursday statement from Sheriff Marlin Gusman. The releases were part of a plan that was implemented on Tuesday in response to the coronavirus, which is “similar to the one the agency utilizes as a tropical storm or hurricane approaches Louisiana,” the statement said.

The release plan was in response to an en banc court order that mandated the release of certain inmates. 

The order, which was provided to The Lens by the Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik, was signed in 2019 by then-Chief Judge of Criminal District Court Keva Landrum-Johnson. It dictates that in the event of an emergency declaration by the federal government, city, state, or chief judge, the Sheriff’s Office must release anyone detained on violations of fines and fees, contempt of court, a remand on a positive drug screen, or are being held pretrial on misdemeanor charges. The release order excludes domestic violence and weapons charges.

According to the sheriff’s statement, there are no individuals in their custody on traffic offenses, and they are reviewing individuals who were booked on state-law misdemeanor charges and will contact the respective judges in each case. OPSO said it has 16 individuals in custody on municipal offenses involving domestic violence that would require further court action in order to be released. 

Over the past few days there has been a sharp reduction in the New Orleans jail population, as the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) and advocacy organizations push for the release of detainees in light of the growing threat of coronavirus. As of Thursday afternoon, the jail population was 971, down from 1,045 last week.

Experts have warned that the threat of coronavirus spreading among a jail population is heightened due to the inability for prisoners to practice social-distancing, a lack of adequate hygienic products, and poor ventilation. 

The Sheriff’s Office said it would quarantine any individuals suspected of coronavirus in designated cells, but that “based on screening of inmates there were no presumptive or confirmed cases at this time.” 

On Monday, the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition sent a letter to criminal justice stakeholders urging them to issue a new en banc order that would mandate the release of anyone being held in jail that the Center for Disease Control deems high risk for coronavirus, along with anyone being held on non-violent offenses that would not be required to serve prison time if convicted, and anyone held on misdemeanor offense. 

“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. This pandemic is an emergency and requires the same amount of attention to preserve the safety of our community members,” the letter reads. 

The Orleans Public Defenders also issued a statement last week calling for the release of anyone being held in jail on non-violent offenses, and the Chief Public Defender Derwyn Bunton wrote a letter to NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson urging him to “suspend all arrests unless there is a clear and present danger of imminent physical harm.” 

“Limiting the number of people introduced to the jail environment is essential to curbing the spread of COVID-19,” Bunton wrote. “Not only does this introduce more community to the threat of the virus (in close quarters), but increases the chance people are newly-infected and released. Most clients in jail will get out of jail. This increases risks for all criminal legal system staff as well.”

In a response, Ferguson said that the department would respond on a case-by-case basis, but would be writing more citations due to court closures. 

Danny Engelberg, Chief of Trials for OPD, has been monitoring first appearances at Criminal District Court via videoconference. He said that low-level arrests are still being made. 

“Broadly speaking, it’s more or less business as usual for arrests,” he said. “People are getting picked up on warrants, and non crimes of violence, and misdemeanors.”

This story was updated after publication to include a reference to the 2019 court order requiring the release of certain low-level defendants in the event of a declared emergency.

Nicholas 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...