It was my first case in the hinterlands of Kings County, a foreign land known to the locals as Brooklyn. A deal was cut to plead out for a sentence of time served, which my client happily accepted. After the judge announced sentence, the court officer was told to “take charge,” which in court lingo means to physically seize the defendant and put him back in the pens.
I immediately got between the court officer and my guy, blocking him from grabbing my client’s upper arm and leading him out of the courtroom. “He got time served,” I said loudly. “He’s walking out with me.”
The judge then explained that they did things differently in the hinterlands than they did in the Big City of Manhattan. Here, he informed me, a defendant had to be “processed out” by corrections before he could be released, but the judge assured me he would be out “today.”
Today? That could mean hours that my client would be held, dining on a slice of moldy American cheese on Wonderbread, when he was supposed to be free. He was ordered to be free, as he was sentenced to time served, which meant he already served his time. It was done.
I was livid. I briefly considered going ballistic about this, but bit my tongue, realizing that if this was the way they did it in Kings County, my throwing a fit wasn’t going to change it, bureaucracies being what they are, and I would at best prolong his detention and at worst join him.
Instead, I waited outside for a few hours to make sure my guy walked out. He eventually did, and I took him to a restaurant for a decent meal. I felt I failed him, as he spent those hours in custody after I told him his sentence would be time served. It may only have been a few extra hours, but it was his hours, his life, and not the state’s to take away from him because it had to “process him out.”
Time served in Louisiana, on the other hand, raises a problem magnitudes worse than anything Brooklyn could do. Johnny Traweek got time served.
The gamble had paid off.
In the hours afterward, Traweek said, he was on “pins and needles,” waiting to hear a deputy call his name to be processed out of the Orleans Justice Center jail. The first thing he planned to do, he said, was to head to the Moonwalk along the Mississippi River.
But no one called his name, not that day or the next.
Traweek asked the deputies why he was still locked up. “Man, check my record,” he’d tell them.
But Traweek didn’t get answers. It didn’t make sense. He had served his time. The judge had said so. It was all in the court record. Why was he still in jail?
Traweek spent seven days in custody beyond “time served. He was lucky it wasn’t more.
Traweek’s case, and others like his, hinge on a single legal question and a recurring problem in Louisiana: does the sheriff’s office or the Department of Corrections have the right to keep someone imprisoned past their scheduled release date for any reason, and if so, how long?
The federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 ruled that it’s “clearly established law that a prison official must ensure an inmate’s timely release from prison” once the sentence has expired. That “timely release” has been defined as less than 48 hours.
There are different ways of calculating a sentence under Louisiana law, apparently, and there is a bureaucratic battle between local and state officials about whose job it is to deal with it, and deal with compliance by actually releasing the inmate. You can have all the law you want, but somebody has to care enough to turn the jail house key and open the door.
But the Circuit held that “timely release” is less than 48 hours? There’s no excuse for “timely” release being more than 48 seconds, first because the life in question doesn’t belong to the state, and the state has no authority to squander that person’s life on whatever bureaucratic nonsense makes its job easier. You want to jail ’em? Then figure out how to release them, on time, immediately. It’s hard? There’s paper work? Math is hard? That’s not the inmates problem. Figure it out.
But even the excuses are ridiculous in this age of, wait for it, computers. It’s one thing to argue that it takes time for the pony express to bring the paper to the prison, but we’re beyond that. We have the technology to both ascertain the sentence to the split second, and to effectuate whatever nonsense they call “processing” instantaneously. And then, the only delay is getting a prison guard to call the inmates name, hand him his possessions and a bus ticket, and walk him to the front gate.
That jails and prisons care little about the actual lives of inmates is no surprise, as they dehumanize people to corral them like cattle in the first place. They’re not people. They’re inmates. Just bodies and numbers, as they do the count to make sure they haven’t lost one today.
But as wrong as that may be, that courts acquiesce to this treatment rather than buck the prison bureaucracy is inexplicable. If the judge says “time served,” why would she find it acceptable to be ignored by some bean counter in a back office, or a screw walking through a cellblock?
It’s bad enough that the machine refuses to recognize that each person awaiting release is a human being, but that judges are such cowards that they would let the machine take precedence over their sentence is pathetic. Whether it’s 48 hours or 48 minutes, or 48 days. Or do the judges care no more about the lives of the inmates than anyone else?