Louisiana lawmakers consider bill to ban the jailing of rape and abuse victims to make them testify
In Louisiana, reports Samantha Michaels at Mother Jones, Democratic State Sen. J.P. Morrell has introduced SB 146, a bill that would prohibit the use of a “material witness warrant” to temporarily lock up victims of sexual assault and domestic violence to ensure they testify in court. This may not happen often in New Orleans or elsewhere, but when it does the damage can be awful well beyond the psychological impact of rape and abuse victims being incarcerated for days, weeks, or months, sometimes in the same jail as the person charged with those crimes, sometimes while the accused is free on bail. Joel Gunter writes:
«Even a couple of days in jail can destroy someone's life,» said Colleen Kane Gielskie, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in New Orleans. «It sets off a cascading effect, you can lose a job, lose custody of children, all kinds of things that can have lasting consequences.»
Gielskie was referencing the case of an attempted gang murder, which is a more common situation for when material witness warrants are issued, as has been done in jurisdictions across the nation. But the effects of jailing in instances of abuse and sexual assault are even more damaging.
Witnesses held under these warrants aren’t protected by constitutional guarantees, including Miranda rights or access to a public defender. Typically a judge issues the warrant on the word of a district attorney without ever hearing from the crime victim. Indeed, getting a prompt appearance before a judge is another right the witness isn’t accorded, thus being victimized twice, once by the perpetrator and then by the system that is supposed to deliver justice.
Michaels cites the case of New Orleans accountant Renata Singleton. In 2015, after being held five days in jail in lieu of $100,000 bail, she showed up in court in an orange jumpsuit to testify in the case of her ex-boyfriend who was facing charges of abusing her. He, on the other hand, came to court in his street clothes, pleaded guilty, and spent zero time in the slam.