Citing concerns about the justice system targeting poor, black, nonviolent offenders, members of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday said no to a request to open a temporary misdemeanor jail downtown.
The council voted 5-4 against the jail, with three absent. The vote followed emotional and often angry commentary from more than a dozen people who questioned the morality of a program intended to jail misdemeanor offenders — some of whom are traffic violators — during a time when Louisiana’s incarceration levels are outpacing the rest of the world. Many accused law enforcement of trying to generate money by targeting poor people unable to pay their fines.
“We incarcerate more people than Cuba, Iran and North Korea combined, and our solution here is to put people in jail for misdemeanors, essentially traffic offenses,” Metro Councilman John Delgado said. “This is obscene.”
Law enforcement leaders have for many years advocated for a misdemeanor jail because they say they need a way to compel scofflaws to show up in court and pay their fines. There are more than 104,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants from City Court and another 60,000 misdemeanor warrants from the 19th Judicial District court. More than 60 percent of those are for traffic violations. City court officials estimate that if all of the fines, fees and court costs associated with their outstanding warrants were paid, it could generate $4.2 million.
While the city-parish has lacked funds to open a year-round jail specifically for misdemeanor offenders, the District Attorney’s Office asked for authority to use $500,000 in dedicated funds to open the jail intermittently for two weeks at a time over the next several months. It’s something law enforcement has previously done in both 2011 and 2012, without opposition.
Felony offenders and some violent misdemeanor offenders are booked into the Parish Prison.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III rejected the claim that the misdemeanor jail proposal targets poor people. Instead, he said, it targets offenders who refuse to come to court at all. He noted that if they came to court, they could make the case they are unable to pay their fines and judges could work with them on payment plans or community service options.
In the past, the Metro Council has been overwhelmingly supportive of the program. The council in previous years both redirected city-parish dollars to fund the misdemeanor jail and passed a resolution creating a $50 bench warrant recall fee to be used to fund the jail year-round. The resolution ultimately set the stage for a bill the Louisiana Legislature passed last year approving the fee and creating a misdemeanor detention fund. That fund has collected more than $680,000 that can be used only for a misdemeanor jail.
Members of the public who urged the council to oppose the program ranged from criminal justice reform advocates to young, black men who said they could easily fall victim to a system that aggressively penalizes people for delinquent fines and missing court dates.
“This is a morality issue and something akin to loan sharking,” said Edmond Jordan, an attorney who also is running for state legislature. “When you borrow from a loan shark, they may break your legs. Well, we’re not breaking their legs but we’re cutting them off at the knees.”
Gary Chambers, publisher of The Rouge Collection, a website that addresses African-American issues in Baton Rouge, said any council member who supported the program was his “enemy,” and he would work to ensure that member didn’t get re-elected.
“We deserve better than this; we shouldn’t even be discussing this matter,” he said. “That $500,000 should go toward something that benefits African-Americans.”
Mike McClanahan, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, called the proposal “backwards” and an “embarrassment,” and accused officials of being motivated by financial gain.
“How is it in 2015 that everybody’s budget depends on the backs of black folks, poor folks and mentally challenged folks,” he said, noting that those are the groups of people who are disproportionately incarcerated.
When the misdemeanor jail was previously opened, law enforcement would target people who had the greatest number of outstanding warrants, sometimes more than 10.
There’s a downtown jail in the basement of the City Court building that was used for the two-week trials. The jail holds about 150 people and is mostly used as a detention center for people who are ultimately transferred to Parish Prison.
During the last misdemeanor jail trial in 2012, 367 people were arrested and 201 people bonded out. Moore said 80 percent of the people arrested were able to leave in less than a day. He said there were never more than 40 people in the jail at a time.
“Nobody in my office or in the police department wakes up in the morning and says we want to put people in jail today,” he said. “This is not about going to pick up people who didn’t pay traffic tickets; this is people who refuse to come to court.”
Council members, led by the black women who represent low-income areas, piled on with their disapproval, asking instead for amnesty programs to give nonviolent misdemeanor offenders an opportunity to clear their warrants without the threat of jail time.
They sympathized with poor people who don’t come to court because they’re too poor to pay the fines or are working minimum-wage jobs and can’t take off work.
“We’ve got to discuss how to take care of business without locking them up,” Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said.
Councilman Joel Boé said regardless of the offense, people have to be held accountable for breaking the law.
“If we don’t stop them on even the smallest offense, then what message are we sending to our community? That we don’t care,” he said.
This is the first time the city-parish has seen public outcry over the misdemeanor jail. There was no opposition during the previous two-week jail trials, which generated thousands of dollars and were heralded as successes for law enforcement.
But this past year, policies that target misdemeanor offenders have come under fire across the country.
In a March report, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, for issuing tens of thousands of arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses as a means to collect money to pay for city government. The report particularly condemned the court for using arrest warrants as a means of securing payments.
Only Boé , Trae Welch, Scott Wilson and Buddy Amoroso voted in favor of the misdemeanor jail. Council members Chauna Banks-Daniel, Donna Collins-Lewis, Marcelle, Tara Wicker and Ryan Heck voted against it. Delgado, who left the meeting early, Ronnie Edwards and Chandler Loupe were absent.