During his 15 years in office, Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mike Neustrom has long focused on the social issues involved in crime and incarceration, with an eye toward reducing recidivism.
The four men vying to succeed Neustrom when he leaves office next summer applaud many of those efforts, but each has his own ideas for changing the way the Sheriff’s Office operates in ways they believe will make it more effective.
Neustrom, the former head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Criminal Justice Department built rehabilitation programs tailored to address factors that lead people to the criminal justice system, such as substance abuse, mental illness, education shortfalls and behavioral mismanagement.
Some of those seeking to succeed him say they want to put more emphasis on the enforcement aspects of the job. And, they say, the office’s $60 million budget needs close scrutiny to make sure money for various programs is being used wisely.
The extent to which the four candidates for sheriff — Rick Chargois, Mark Garber, Chad Leger and John Rogers — plan to follow the path laid out by Neustrom has been the focus of questions posed throughout this election season.
Various offender programs implemented under Neustrom have generated revenue for the Sheriff’s Office through the collection of fees and money from inmate enterprises. They covered 28 percent of the agency’s operating expenses in 2014, according to its most recent completed audit.
Garber, who’s been endorsed by Neustrom, has championed those efforts throughout his campaign.
“I see the practical benefits of these programs to the taxpayer and to Lafayette Parish, and I’m really excited about them,” Garber said, adding they are socially beneficial and help put offenders on the right path.
The Sheriff’s Office has touted diversion programs as a contributor to reducing the rate at which offenders commit new crimes that land them back in jail. The degree to which recidivism has been reduced in the parish is unclear. The full text of the agency’s study on recidivism, completed in August, has not yet been released publicly.
All of the candidates have pledged to financially evaluate the agency’s operations, with Chargois, Leger and Rogers suggesting some of the programs are fraught with wasteful spending.
Rogers, a litigation specialist for the Sheriff’s Office, said consolidation should be a consideration for the agency’s numerous programs and properties to better use existing resources.
“I just feel like we could be a lot smarter with what we’re doing,” Rogers said.
Leger suggested the same, pointing to the new $26 million public safety complex on Willow Street as one example. Meant to function as a low-security facility for work-release inmates nearing the end of their sentences, Leger said the 12-acre property could be used both for its intended purpose and to house the agency’s various departments now scattered among more than two dozen properties throughout the parish.
“For the amount of money that was spent and went over budget on, I think the facility could have been better prepared and better laid out to bring in these other departments throughout the Sheriff’s Office,” Leger said.
Although not fully operational — the Sheriff’s Office has not yet staffed the facility — it’s costing about $700,000 a year to operate, according to budget documents.
As seen in his ambitious projects, Neustrom’s focus has been on corrections. But each candidate said they want to see more manpower shifted toward enforcement.
Chargois, who retired in 2004 as a State Police lieutenant, said he wants to create a task force with the federal government to combat drug trafficking. He said he also envisions the Lafayette Metro Narcotics Task Force — a cooperative effort between the Sheriff’s Office and Lafayette Police Department — to include officers from the parish’s five outlying municipalities.
“It can be so much more effective,” Chargois said.
Chargois also said he envisions the Sheriff’s Office bringing in more money through traffic enforcement, specifically through the Local Agency Compensated Enforcement program . Through the program, government or judicial agencies team with law enforcement to fund a traffic detail.
Chargois said the program has led to people’s perceptions about officers “meeting a quota” on tickets but suggested it could help maintain public safety and the budget.
“If we do these types of things properly, they do bring money to the organization,” Chargois said.
Chargois — who got 34 percent of the vote when he ran against Neustrom in 2011 — said he also wants to see all employees cross-trained as both correctional officers and commissioned deputies.
Garber, a worker’s compensation attorney, has centered his campaign around his diverse experience. He’s worked as Louisiana game warden and as a police sergeant in Arlington, Texas, where he earned a law degree.
He suggested the Sheriff’s Office could do more with its existing resources by implementing new crime analytics software comparable to what he’s used at the federal level, where he worked as a civilian employee with the U.S. Air Force and as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
“We collect a tremendous amount of information from everybody we come in contact with, but we’re not very good as a culture at squeezing usable data out of that information that helps us do our job,” Garber said.
Garber said his experience as a prosecutor with the 15th Judicial District gave him a distinct view of the parish’s “hot spots” for crime. One of his ideas for targeting high-crime areas in the parish involves a balance between community policing and zero-tolerance enforcement, which would include enforcing nuisance abatement laws on “blighted properties that are magnets for this criminal activity,” he said.
“Instead of just responding and reacting, I want to get to the root cause of what is going on there,” Garber said.
Leger, who began his career at the Sheriff’s Office and is now in his fourth term as Scott police chief, said he wants to increase patrols throughout the parish, especially when it comes to narcotics. He envisions putting more patrol deputies on each shift and training more as undercover officers.
Leger also points to staffing at the Sheriff’s Office, in which more than 500 employees work in corrections and slightly more than 200 as commissioned deputies with enforcement capabilities.
“To me, that’s lopsided,” Leger said.
Rogers, a litigation specialist with the Sheriff’s Office, said community policing is the best way to the root of most crimes.
“You’ve got to take a humanitarian approach if you want to change the atmosphere of law enforcement,” Rogers said.
He also envisions expanding the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee — a group started by Neustrom that includes members of government, law enforcement, and the school and judicial systems — to include the outlying municipal police departments and administration.
Rogers said he also favors eliminating salary caps for employees of the Sheriff’s Office to provide more avenues for advancement.
All the candidates said they would advocate for a multiagency effort — across both law enforcement, health care, legislative and governmental lines — to devise a physician-involved approach to diverting mentally ill offenders from the criminal justice system.
The Sheriff’s Office has been touting models in other parts of the country in which minor offenders are able to receive treatment outside of the criminal justice system, which has become the de facto place where these offenders end up.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.