Stopping an End Run Around Government Accountability
Imagine a world where, for 10 straight seasons, NFL referees made substantial scoring mistakes. For a season or two, the blame for game-changing calls would be laid at the feet of individual referees. By season 10, few would doubt that it is not the referees who are the problem but rather the person who oversees them. After all, referees come and go, but a decade of error-ridden seasons can only mean something is wrong at the top.
In a world with qualified immunity, however, that’s not how it works. Even after season 10, the supervising official, with a straight face, can claim that he is untouchable—that he shouldn’t have to accept personal responsibility for his inability or unwillingness to train, supervise, and discipline his staff.
That’s exactly the approach taken by James LeBlanc, the head of Louisiana’s prisons. Since 2012, he has known that his prisons regularly overdetain people. A 2012 study that LeBlanc himself commissioned stated that, on average, 2,200 prisoners were being overdetained annually.
One of those prisoners is IJ client Percy Taylor. Percy was convicted of selling drugs and spent 20 years in prison—a year and a half past his release date. As they had with so many inmates before Percy, LeBlanc’s employees miscalculated Percy’s sentence. Percy discovered the error, but no one working in LeBlanc’s prisons would listen. Even after a state judge called their failures “manifestly erroneous,” Percy’s jailers held fast. He was finally released on February 18, 2020—525 days too late.
Percy is now suing LeBlanc for the deliberate indifference that caused his overdetention. After all, LeBlanc has known since at least 2012 what he needed to do: adopt a sentence calculation manual, institute training, and perform regular audits to ensure people in his custody are let go once their sentences are complete and they’ve paid their debts to society. But with a shield like qualified immunity, it is easier to be sued than to fix the problem.
Or at least that’s what LeBlanc thought. Now that IJ is representing Percy, LeBlanc has a real fight on his hands. Following our involvement, the 5th Circuit panel withdrew its earlier opinion granting LeBlanc qualified immunity and ordered oral argument by IJ. Stay tuned.
Anya Bidwell is an IJ attorney and co-leader of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability.
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