East Baton Rouge Parish residents could face a fine for skipping misdemeanor court dates if a new fee proposal is passed by the Metro Council in the coming weeks.
The proposal, drafted by the East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney’s Office, asks all courts in the parish to impose a $50 warrant recall fee on anyone who fails to appear for any misdemeanor or traffic offenses, according to the written proposal for the fee.
The money collected from the fee will be deposited into a “misdemeanor detention fund,” which will be used solely to operate a 24-hour misdemeanor jail, according to the proposal.
The item will be introduced to the Metro Council on Wednesday. It will be voted upon on Oct. 12.
Maintaining a parishwide, 24-hour misdemeanor jail is on a wish list of parish crime-reducing projects created by the council’s Crime Fighting/Prevention Committee, which consists of parish law enforcement agency heads, Metro Councilman Trae Welch and Mayor-President Kip Holden.
First Assistant Parish Attorney LeaAnne Batson said the Parish Attorney’s Office was directed by the Metro Council to work with the committee to find ways to fund the jail, which led to the fee proposal.
The fee’s main purpose is to help fund a misdemeanor jail and keep it open continually — and not necessarily to convince offenders to resolve their outstanding warrants — said Mark Dumaine, chief of administration for the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office.
“The city council passing a fee doesn’t do anything,” Dumaine said. “But passing a fee where, if law enforcement goes out there for two weeks, and that fee goes to fund more operations … that does work.”
One potential problem with the fee is whether judges will actually impose it, City Constable Reginald Brown said.
“I know they’re not going to commit to just imposing a fee like that,” said Brown, whose office runs the Baton Rouge City Jail. “It’s going to raise a big question mark as to how far this process goes.”
The City Jail conducted a two-week period of 24-hour operation from July 22 through Aug. 5 to house misdemeanor offenders.
During that period, parishwide agencies booked 348 prisoners into the jail and recalled 5,131 warrants because of voluntary compliance, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks has said.
Baton Rouge City Court also collected more than $191,000 in additional revenue from fines, court costs and failure-to-appear fees in those two weeks, City Court administrator Lon Norris has said.
The City Jail currently stays open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and closes on weekends.
East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said at a July 20 news conference that he, Brown and District Attorney Hillar Moore III started talking about extending the City Jail’s hours more than a year ago.
Parish law enforcement officials consider the fee proposal a “no-brainer” after the trial period, Dumaine said.
“It clearly demonstrated to not just government but the public at large that there are thousands of people that are not taking care of their business with the courts because there is not a misdemeanor jail,” he said.
Hicks said Friday that the recall fee will put the cost of the jail “onto those people that are ignoring their obligations to system rather than to place the burden fully on the taxpayers in the parish.”
Hicks also said that during the two-week trial period, most people who went through 19th Judicial District Court simply requested a new hearing for their case and did not face a $50 fee like those who went through Baton Rouge City Court.
“The result (is) that some of these people are now not showing up on the new court date, and new warrants are again being issued,” Hicks said.
Brown said parish law enforcement officials want to run a parishwide misdemeanor jail to eliminate those backlogs in the criminal justice system.
“Then you’ve got more time to focus attention on the other, more serious crimes,” Brown said.
Brown said the idea for the fee came about as a collaboration of parish law enforcement agencies and the Metro Council.
“They’re trying to find funding ways to run the misdemeanor jail,” Brown said.
Most expenses for the jail will come from hiring staff and personnel to run it continually, Brown said.