Now that a proposal to establish a temporary jail targeting misdemeanor offenders has been rejected by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, there are two major issues still unresolved.
What will happen to the $686,000 in fees so far gathered to open the misdemeanor jail, and how is the city expected to deal with its backlog of more than 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants?
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Thursday after the vote that he was still recovering from the political firestorm that emerged as council members debated opening a jail specifically targeted at people who have racked up warrants in misdemeanor and traffic cases for not showing up to court. The idea had unanimous support from the previous council, but this time around, several members changed their minds, joined by some recent additions to the panel.
Moore said he was unsure if he’d continue pursuing the concept of a misdemeanor jail, adding that he was “very disappointed in the orchestrated politics last night.”
“I’m not sure how or what to do with the money at this point,” he said. “My main goal is voluntary compliance with the law and public safety over everything else.”
Ultimately, council members voted against the jail as speaker after speaker called it a “debtor’s prison.” Several people at the Wednesday meeting said the jail would mostly lock up low-income, black, misdemeanor offenders, who they argued were likely too poor to pay their court fines and fees. Increased scrutiny of Louisiana’s high incarceration levels and criticisms of policies nationwide that trap low-income people in criminal justice systems because they can’t afford to pay fines also probably contributed to the changing attitudes toward the once-popular jail concept.
Moore requested authorization of dedicated funds to open a misdemeanor jail for two weeks at a time, using a mostly defunct downtown jail in the City Court building. Law enforcement supporters of the idea said they would target offenders with high numbers of warrants. Earlier two-week trials were conducted in both 2011 and 2012, but this would have been the first time the jail would have been supported by a dedicated revenue source.
In 2011, the Metro Council unanimously passed a resolution urging judges to impose a $50 fee on people who failed to appear in court for misdemeanor and traffic violations. That resolution was codified into law when the Legislature in 2014 passed a bill by now-deceased state Rep. Alfred Williams to establish the fee that would be used to fund a jail.
Not a single member of the House voted against the bill, which specified that the fee could be used only to operate a misdemeanor jail.
Mayor-President Kip Holden has yet to weigh in on the jail debate and didn’t respond to requests for comments. Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said his staffers are evaluating options for what can be done with the money.
“It seems very clear that if the money is for a misdemeanor jail and the council doesn’t think it’s a good idea then we will suggest that the judges stop collecting the fee,” he said.
Council members who opposed the jail Wednesday said it was likely the money would have to be rededicated or undedicated by another act of the Legislature. Some council members said they were hopeful there would be a way to use the money with a looser interpretation of the law.
One possibility is that officials could try to use the funds at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, which does hold some misdemeanor offenders, particularly ones who are involved in violent offenses or were arrested for driving under the influence.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said she is hopeful the funds could be used for the mentally ill people who often are picked up for misdemeanor violations, such as disturbances, but are incarcerated at the Parish Prison because there are no longer medical facilities that can treat them.
She said the downtown jail in City Court could potentially be transformed into a triage area for the mentally ill, where they could be assessed or directed toward help.
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she was hopeful the funds could be used to pay for an amnesty program at City Court — a period of a week or two where people with outstanding warrants could come to court, set up new appearance dates and not face the threat of jail or be forced to pay additional money in the form of bonding out of jail.
Marcelle said she was upset by the misdemeanor jail trial that was set up in 2012 because she saw bail bondsmen “wrapped around the building,” and it occurred to her that this might be a financial gain for the city on the backs of those who can least afford it.
Councilman John Delgado said the money should simply be undedicated by the Legislature and kept by the court. He noted that Baton Rouge City Court is seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade its computer system and those dollars could be used for that purpose.
He also said the Parish Attorney’s Office already is researching ways to set up an amnesty program, an idea he supports.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel said she’d like the money to be rededicated for other issues that affect the criminal justice system, such as youth intervention programs or programs like job training for ex-inmates that prepare them for the workforce.
At least a few council members say they still support the misdemeanor jail concept and would like the council to reconsider it.
“I think it should absolutely be reconsidered,” Councilman Trae Welch said. “What I heard from people last night is that they have a total disregard for law enforcement and a total disregard for the court system. Do we say that these laws mean nothing?”
Councilman Joel Boé said he’s hopeful that a possible compromise could be reached between law enforcement and the concerned members of the council that would allow the misdemeanor jail proposal to go forward.
“What I heard last night was that they didn’t want people with single traffic violations who forgot to pay to get hung up in court,” he said. “Maybe a compromise would be that when they’re doing these warrant roundups, they don’t go after people with less than three active warrants.”
He said he’d like the fund to stay intact for now, noting that the council might change after the fall elections because three council members are running for legislative seats.