There’s no disputing that Rogers Thomas deserved to go to jail.
After committing a slew of misdemeanors and failing repeatedly to show up for Baton Rouge City Court, it came as little surprise when he was sentenced to six months for contempt of court on each of several bench warrants.
Thomas had picked up an additional two-month sentence for other convictions, but still might have expected an early release from East Baton Rouge Parish Prison with good time credit.
But an unusual confluence of events kept Thomas behind bars for several months longer than he should have been, according to documents and interviews.
Due to a glaring ambiguity in his original sentence — and an apparent miscommunication between the Parish Prison and state officials — he served nearly a year and a half on relatively minor charges before being released.
While Thomas has long struggled to stay out of trouble, he is suing East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and other officials for the oversight, claiming he was held as long as 10 to 13 months beyond his anticipated release date.
The Sheriff’s Office has denied liability, claiming the lawsuit should be thrown out because Thomas failed to follow the jail’s “administrative remedy procedure” to file a formal grievance.
The case underscores the often complicated nature of sentence calculation and the potential for error among the many moving parts of the criminal justice system.
“There is no centralized oversight of this,” said Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, who has heard of similar cases. “To make sure that folks are being released on the date that they’re supposed to be, the state would have to appoint someone and, of course, that means spending money.”
Thomas, 36, has a lengthy history of run-ins with law enforcement, including convictions for burglary, trespassing, possession of drug paraphernalia and theft.
In April 2010, for instance, he was issued a summons and banned from Albertsons on Government Street after stealing steaks from the grocery store.
In July 2010, Thomas faced a day of reckoning when he was returned to City Court, a place he had long eschewed. He was sentenced by retired Judge Darrell White to six months in Parish Prison for a bevy of missed court dates, some dating back to 2006.
But according to court administrators, it wasn’t clear from the record whether his contempt of court sentences were intended to be run concurrently as a single, 180-day term or consecutively — an unusually harsh sentence for the venue that would lock him up for him for at least two years.
“The minutes didn’t reflect that, so it goes to the jail without any indication,” said Lynn Maloy, the court’s chief deputy judicial administrator.
Warden Dennis Grimes said his staff adheres religiously to documentation it receives from the courts, probation and parole officers and other involved agencies. In Thomas’ case, Grimes said, the eight contempt of court sentences were presumed under the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure to be consecutive sentences unless otherwise specified.
“The court did not state otherwise,” he said, “therefore we followed the law.”
By January 2011, after serving more than six months, Thomas put his concerns in writing. Suspecting some kind of error had occurred, he began inquiring with the jailers about his remaining sentence.
“Please can you please look into this matter for me,” he wrote in one letter, “my children are really looking forward to seeing me come home.”
“I don’t have money in my account,” he added on a separate inmate request form. “So please, I can’t do two years off a mistake someone made in the computer.”
A prison official wrote Thomas back telling him that, because his sentences were running consecutively, his projected release date was not until in June 2012. About three months later, Thomas found a sympathetic ear after filing a motion in City Court seeking to amend his sentence.
Judge Laura Prosser, who had been away on the day Thomas received his contempt of court sentences, recalled reviewing the file and realizing “he had served more time than he needed to on the contempt” charges. She said it would be highly unusual for multiple contempt of court charges in City Court to run consecutively.
“I don’t think anybody ever does it that way, but that’s the way the jail looked at it,” Prosser said in a telephone interview. “I haven’t ever seen a case in which the person served that much more time than he was supposed to serve.”
In response to Thomas’ motion, Prosser suspended his remaining jail sentence in May 2011, leaving a note in the file that said his jail time “should have been run concurrently.” While the move ostensibly cleared the way for Thomas’ release, he faced a second major hurdle in the form of a parole hold he thought had been lifted months earlier.
On this front, state and local officials last week offered conflicting accounts of what prolonged Thomas sentence an additional six months.
Grimes, the warden, said jail officials received an unsolicited letter on Nov. 17, 2011, from the Department of Corrections Probation & Parole division, lifting Thomas’ hold. That letter, he said, had been dated more than a year earlier — Oct. 21, 2010 — the date state corrections officials claim they initially faxed documentation to the Parish Prison cancelling the detainer.
Pam Laborde, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections, noted Thomas’ misdemeanor charges were not serious enough for officials to request a revocation of his supervision. She said the Corrections and Justice Unified Network, the agency’s case management system, made note of the cancellation letter being faxed to Parish Prison in October 2010.
Grimes, however, insisted the Sheriff’s Office has received no documentation showing the letter was faxed or delivered before Nov. 17, 2011.
“We contacted probation, and the individual that signed the letter no longer works there,” Grimes said. “The supervisor who was identified on the letter by name, but that did not sign the letter, was not available to talk to us regarding this matter.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, the direct cost of housing an inmate in Parish Prison is approximately $4.73 per day. Officials said that amount covers food, clothing, toiletries, cleaning and “other necessities.”
Grimes said he has implemented a series of checks and balances in order to audit the more than 2,000 inmates in custody.
At the beginning of each month, he said, staff members review the files of inmates who were booked six months before.
The prison also has a grievance policy for inmates — a remedy sheriff’s officials say Thomas failed to exhaust.
Sheriff’s officials said they were not aware of other cases like Thomas’. But Thomas’ attorney, James Benton III, said it’s possible the litigation could grow if he finds more inmates held beyond their release dates.
“I’ve actually been getting a lot of calls from people telling me that they’ve heard this has been happening again,” he said.