A proposal pushed by District Attorney Hillar Moore III to set up a temporary misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge is running into more road blocks, including losing key support from one of the city officials who would run the facility.
City Constable Reginald Brown, who is in charge of misdemeanor warrants and would oversee the jail, recently indicated that he is cooling to the idea and would prefer to see local public safety leaders redirect their efforts to address the more than 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants.
Additionally, a judge with the 19th Judicial District Court on Wednesday expressed opposition to the bench warrant recall fee currently being levied, which would be used to fund the proposed jail. Judge Janice Clark said it’s inappropriate, and potentially illegal, for the judges to assess what she considers a tax to fund a jail.
Still, Moore is moving forward in his pursuit of the jail. Following recent opposition from some council members and members of the public — who questioned whether the jail would effectively act as a “debtor’s prison” for people who couldn’t afford to pay traffic ticket fines — the district attorney is angling to bring the proposal back for consideration while making adjustments that will appease some of the critics.
He said Wednesday that he believes the jail is an urgent public safety tool that could lower violent crime in the city. “This summer, we didn’t have the misdemeanor jail, and while it’s not responsible for every murder, this is responsible for the crime rate being slightly higher,” Moore said. “Baton Rouge could have done better than other cities, but we missed out on that. It’s time for everyone to get on board and stop looking the other way.”
Moore’s office asked the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in recent weeks for authorization to use dedicated money to open a misdemeanor jail on a temporary basis, two weeks at a time for the next several months, to crack down on repeat offenders who refuse to show up in court.
The request was rejected by the council, after opponents accused law enforcement officials of using the jail to target nonviolent, low-income misdemeanor offenders as a way to shake them down for money for the courts. More than 60 percent of misdemeanor warrants are traffic-related offenses, and critics angrily took issue with a proposal that potentially could result in jailing traffic violators.
In the wake of the council’s action, Moore has actively started a plan for amnesty programs, per the request of council members. He said the first one will be in Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle’s district, where judges, attorneys and other officials would locate at a community center and offer amnesty and waive fees and fines for some nonviolent, lower-level offenses. He said it would mostly target traffic offenders.
Brown said this week that he’s no longer in favor of the misdemeanor jail concept. Brown worked with the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office when the misdemeanor jail concept was opened in 2011 and 2012. He previously has been an advocate of the jail, which is housed in the downtown detention center in the basement of City Court that he oversees.
Brown said he’s too understaffed to oversee the 24-hour misdemeanor jail for two weeks at a time. He noted that it’s a time-consuming endeavor and his staff of 39 deputies is tied up in overtime working for LSU and Southern University for football season.
He also doesn’t believe that the misdemeanor jail effectively addresses the backlog of outstanding warrants.
“A two-week operation isn’t going to put a dent in terms of warrants,” he said. “But moneywise, it will probably generate $100,000 or maybe more.”
He said he is putting together an alternate plan to address the outstanding warrants, which will include giving him more staff who can assist other law enforcement with warrant verification around the clock.
Brown also laments that he was never properly informed by the District Attorney’s Office about its plans to propose the misdemeanor jail.
Moore said he was disappointed that Brown has withdrawn support.
“His position has always been clear that he was for the misdemeanor jail,” Moore said. “I don’t know what or who caused his change of position.”
With the jail in limbo, it’s unclear what will happen to the $686,000 that has been generated so far to fund it.
The fee was established by unanimous votes from the Metro Council and the Legislature, dedicating a $50 bench warrant recall fee to the purpose of establishing the jail.
On Wednesday, judges of the 19th Judicial District Court discussed the fee and the misdemeanor jail.
Chief Judge Don Johnson said the judges would continue to assess the fee until there was some legal change that indicated they needed to stop.
Clark said at the meeting that she felt that it was not the judicial branch’s place to impose what she called a tax to fund a jail.
Moore responded that the fee was OK’d by the Louisiana Judiciary Commission before it was sent to the Legislature for approval.
Clark said after the meeting that she’d prefer to see the fees be used for court operations and administration, “especially drug court, where we have a serious shortfall in funds.”
But Moore said he doesn’t believe the dollars can be used for a purpose other than a misdemeanor jail, unless the Legislature approves another bill rededicating the funds.
Moore has found himself in recent weeks battling for the misdemeanor jail on an island without much support from other law enforcement or other leaders — a stark change from previous years when the jail was championed by council members and implemented with praise and zero opposition.
The fee to fund the jail was approved unanimously by both the Metro Council and the Legislature. Some of his past allies on the issue, including members of the Metro Council, have either changed their minds or gone quiet.
At the Metro Council meeting when members rejected the proposal, neither the constable nor Sheriff Sid Gautreaux was in attendance. A representative for the Sheriff’s Office was present, but she told the Metro Council that Gautreaux would support whatever they ultimately decided.
Moore said he thinks people are reacting to stories nationwide where law enforcement has been criticized for overincarceration and targeting misdemeanor offenders.
But he said the difference with Baton Rouge is that most of these people who would be impacted by the proposed misdemeanor jail are people who have repeatedly refused to show up in court to face their charges.