Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges on Friday denied an emergency petition by the Orleans Public Defenders to release people being held in the city’s jail on non-violent charges and those at high risk of severe illness or death from the new coronavirus.

The judges also issued a statement saying that there are no known individuals being held in jail solely on low-level, non-violent offenses. This appears to contradict a letter written earlier today by the public defenders that said they had identified over 200 people being held on non-violent charges. 

The statement from the judges did not address the number of people in custody who may be at high-risk of severe illness or death from the new coronavirus, or whether they should qualify for release.

The emergency petition was dismissed on procedural grounds, according to the order issued on Friday, “for failing to submit to Habeas Corpus requirements set forth in law.” The order cites the requirements that a petition must name the person in custody. The petition by the public defenders identified categories of prisoners they moved to release, but did not identify the individuals.

“We filed an unprecedented action because of these unprecedented circumstances, and we hoped the bench would also recognize the urgency of the situation,” said Colin Reingold, Litigation Director for the Orleans Public Defenders. “We are disappointed they are not going to act on the class of individuals that we identified as being strong candidates for immediate release, but it is our intention to re-file with the specific names of these individuals we’ve identified.”

It is unclear the cause for the discrepancy between the public defenders assessment that over 200 people are being held on non-violent charges and the judges contention that there aren’t any.  One contributing factor may be individuals who have had their probation or parole revoked for a non-violent crime, but were originally convicted of a crime of violence. 

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik declined to comment. 

On Thursday, Sheriff Marlin Gusman urged the acting Criminal District Court Chief Judge Robin Pittman to find a way to reduce the jail population, suggesting they release anyone held on non-violent charges without a prior criminal record. 

“I will assist the Court with any service or notice which needs to be provided with any individuals released from custody, or with any other tasks necessary to facilitate this process,” Gusman wrote. “I appreciate any support which you can provide at this unprecedented time and I look forward to discussing this with you and the other Judges.”

In their statement, the judges said they are conducting daily reviews of people who are being held in jail.

“If somehow such a person qualifying for immediate relief has been overlooked,” the statement reads, “the Section judge, Magistrate, or Commissioner or the Court’s Judicial Administrator’s Office can be contacted for immediate investigation of the matter and referral to the appropriate judicial officer.”

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...