All four announced candidates for Lafayette Parish sheriff agree action is needed to improve law enforcement’s approach to mental health care, each saying cross-agency collaboration is necessary while offering varied perspectives on the sheriff’s responsibility toward the issue.
Each candidate — Rick Chargois, Mark Garber, Chad Leger and John Rogers — took turns standing solo before a crowd of about 400 on Thursday to answer a series of questions in a candidate forum organized by the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office at its Willow Street complex.
About 30 percent of people in Sheriff’s Office custody suffer from mental illnesses, while about 60 percent of them suffer from substance abuse issues, said Pearson Cross, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor who moderated the forum.
Using those statistics, Cross framed a question asking the candidates for their thoughts on approaching the matter in a cost-efficient way.
All four candidates suggested it will take collaboration among local law enforcement, government and nongovernment agencies to consider how to divert mentally ill offenders from jail and into treatment.
Chargois, a retired State Police veteran, said the sheriff should research how to obtain better care for mentally ill people than what’s offered in jails. But he said it shouldn’t be the sheriff’s responsibility alone for providing that care.
“That is not typically a sheriff’s job. It’s fallen upon him,” Chargois said.
Although all candidates support the concept of a “restoration center” — through which petty offenders receive mental health treatment instead of getting booked into jail at the cost of $54 a day — Garber, a former 15th Judicial District prosecutor, suggested a regional center of that nature would be a more effective approach.
Rogers, a litigation specialist for the Sheriff’s Office said he supports the idea — saying the jail is no place for mental health treatment — but noted it could prove challenging to allocate the resources needed to train, staff, build and maintain such a facility.
Leger, police chief of Scott, suggested instead it would be more efficient to start with the deputies and offer more frequent training for the men and women first on the scene of incidents involving a mentally ill person.
“They are the ones who are addressing those issues,” Leger said.
The candidates also praised numerous diversion programs started under Sheriff Mike Neustrom’s leadership, but each had different views on how they’d deal with those programs, which are meant to keep offenders out of jail, prepare inmates for re-entry and reduce the likelihood released inmates commit more criminal acts.
Chargois said he wants to take a hard look at the existing programs for efficiency and effectiveness but noted there are still some habitual offenders who “need the process of the jail system.”
Leger also spoke of evaluating the programs and suggested hiring a full-time grant writer. He said his focus as sheriff would be toward strengthening programs for juvenile offenders, while Garber said he wants to gradually expand the diversion programs that can be successful and cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, especially for misdemeanor crimes.
Garber also spoke of aligning Sheriff’s Office technology with neighboring agencies to streamline information across the board “in ways that we haven’t even seen yet.” This, he said, would include predictive analytics systems like those he became familiar with while working with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Rogers, too, suggested evaluating the programs. Although he didn’t give specifics, he said more needs to be done for victims of crimes.
“If we’re gonna address the issue of offenders, then we also need to address the issue of victims,” Rogers said.
The candidates also were asked about employee retention and recruitment in the Sheriff’s Office, and all spoke in support of increasing salaries. Chargois said he’s opposed to salary caps, while Leger said he wants to re-examine a tax for employee salaries and be sure the funds are being distributed efficiently.
Garber said he’d like to implement an in-house day care for employees working after-hours, while Rogers said he’d like to see the Sheriff’s Office expand its college tuition reimbursement program beyond Lafayette’s technical and community colleges and the university.
Neustrom, a four-term sheriff in office since 2000, announced his retirement in January.
The primary election is on Oct. 24, and a runoff election, if needed, is on Nov. 21. Qualifying for candidates is Sept. 8-10.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.