Violent crimes occur in East Baton Rouge Parish about as often today as they did in the early 2000s.

It hasn’t always been that way. Crime, along with the parish’s population, spiked in the mid-2000s, which authorities attributed to the growth in population as the area absorbed tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Along with the crime, the number of people brought to the Parish Prison rose, too.

But as violent crime increased, then leveled out, before eventually declining over the past few years, bookings at the Parish Prison continued to rise. In fact, the figure grew almost every year since 2000, doubling from about 10,000 people per year then to about 20,000 people annually now, according to statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Office.

The increase in bookings, a roughly 100 percent bump, reflects a trend seen in many other states and counties around the country: Violent crime is on the decline, but people remain jailed in record numbers. In many jurisdictions, this is a result of “broken windows” policing, or cops focusing on minor infractions as a way to ward off larger crimes. But some researchers are skeptical about the efficacy of these strategies, deriding the phenomenon as “mass incarceration.”

Even some in law enforcement aren’t sure that jailing lots of people is a good idea. “It’s not making us safer,” said Ronal Serpas, the recently retired New Orleans police superintendent turned criminal justice professor at Loyola University who has studied incarceration trends on a national scale. “It’s costing us billions of dollars that we don’t have.”

In East Baton Rouge Parish, jailing costs recently took center stage, as law enforcement pushed the idea of building a new $200 million Parish Prison that would have been the state’s largest jail. With the rejection of a May tax election by the Metro Council last week, that idea appears to be at least temporarily on ice.

But the plan raises larger questions, most not explored during the recent Parish Prison debate. Does Baton Rouge really need a jail to house 2,500 inmates, a jail more than twice as big as Jefferson Parish’s and considerably larger than what is anticipated for New Orleans? And aside from building a bigger facility, could the parish take steps to reduce the size of the pretrial inmate population?

Misdemeanor arrests rise

Pinpointing the reason for the steady climb in bookings in East Baton Rouge Parish is difficult, law enforcement representatives said, because so many factors could contribute, from arrest policies and clearance rates to population growth and crime rates.

But considering that felony crimes, when compared to figures in the early 2000s, are mostly down, albeit slightly, and that the parish population has grown only by roughly 7 percent, from about 413,000 then to about 445,000 now, one likely cause for the booking boom is that law enforcement officers now are jailing many more people on misdemeanor offenses than they did in previous years.

“It sounds like what’s going on there is not that uncommon with what’s going on in a lot of places around the country,” said Dianne Beer-Maxwell, a programs manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t track the breakdown of its booking numbers, meaning it would be an extraordinary task to discover trends about the offenses on which people are booked.

However, representatives from the Baton Rouge Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office — the vast majority of bookings are done by members of these two agencies — suggested that a relatively recent push to combat violent crime could have at least contributed to the increases in bookings in the few years prior to 2014.

But they also agree that misdemeanors are playing a part. Police officers now book more people on violent misdemeanors, such as aggravated assault — defined as an attempted battery with a weapon — and some instances of domestic abuse battery, than they used to, said Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a Police Department spokesman.

Dunnam said police officers often now book more people for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, which range from public intoxication and disturbing the peace to remaining after being forbidden and many traffic violations. This is especially true for people with outstanding bench warrants.

“There would be no reason to give a summons to someone who already has a tendency to not show up for their court date,” Dunnam said.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said many different factors could affect booking numbers. For example, because the Sheriff’s Office has seen a steady increase in the percentage of crimes it solves, Hicks said, that could contribute to more bookings.

Law enforcement officials also said closures of state mental health facilities in recent years could have contributed to the increased bookings. Without easy access to psychiatric emergency rooms to take people with mental illness or substance abuse issues who are acting up, often committing petty crimes in the process, local law enforcement officers often must rely on the jails.

Along with a new jail, city-parish officials had hoped the $335 million tax proposal rejected by the council would include the creation of a new mental health center where police could leave people in mental distress instead of arresting them.

Regardless of the reason behind the increase, the steady but substantial rise in bookings has led to an overflowing jail where hundreds of inmates, almost all of them awaiting trial as opposed to serving sentences, are being held at other parish jails across the state because there is no room for them at the Parish Prison.

Pretrial release without bond

Overcrowding, while problematic in many ways, is not unique to East Baton Rouge Parish.

In fact, similar situations in Orleans and Lafayette parishes forced officials to find ways to shrink inmate populations without sacrificing public safety. Each parish sought to hold fewer low-risk, nonviolent offenders while reserving jail beds for the people who truly represent a danger to the community.

One similar idea implemented in both parishes was the creation of risk-based screening evaluations for every individual booked into the jail. Such practices, often described as “pretrial services” or “pretrial release” programs — not to be confused with pretrial programs offered by prosecutors often as a form of a plea deal — are gaining in popularity nationally, especially because of the net taxpayer savings boasted by many jurisdictions that implement them.

One of the goals of such programs is to eliminate or reduce the role wealth plays in determining who stays locked up awaiting trial. That means judges release more defendants considered “low risk” and likely to return to court without requiring them to pay a bond.

“Louisiana as a whole has a pretty thriving financial bail system,” said Cherise Fanno Berdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I would posit that if your jail is anything like a couple of the other jails in Louisiana, you have folks that are in there on meager bond amounts that they cannot meet.”

In general, Berdeen said, the majority of pretrial systems around the country lead to too many low-risk, poor inmates being jailed and too many high-risk inmates being released, saying most bail systems inherently feature “an escape hatch” for anyone who can afford to pony up for big bail amounts.

Best pretrial practices around the country, Berdeen said, usually include four key features: an evidence-based risk assessment screening process, early appointment of defense counsel, early screening of cases by prosecutors, and supervision decisions from judges that reflect the risks and needs presented by the individual inmate.

“We want people to be in jail for the right reasons,” said Beer-Maxwell, the program manager for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which supports the adoption of such practices.

But some community stakeholders often are hesitant about adopting pretrial release programs. At Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, for example, the program has been met with resistance from many judges. Bail bondsmen, too, derided the New Orleans program as a waste of money, critiquing the process as not capturing the true risk posed by many inmates and duplicating judges’ work.

For judges, one concern is that a released inmate could commit another crime, particularly a violent one.

While understanding the concern, Beer-Maxwell said making informed decisions on a wealth of individual information generally leads to better results. Housing everyone who is arrested in jail because of the mere possibility that they might do something bad doesn’t make a lot of sense, she said, especially considering how people with flush pockets can usually buy their way out of jail.

East Baton Rouge Parish does not currently operate a pretrial release program based on risk assessments.

However, Hillar Moore III, the district attorney, said it’s an option worth exploring. He also said the city-parish should consider funding a misdemeanor jail, which wouldn’t keep people long but likely would be a more effective enforcement tool than summonses.

Before a pretrial release program could be developed though, Moore said, a host of other services — from probation-like supervision teams to mental health and substance abuse treatment facilities — would need to be created to support such a process locally.

Otherwise, he said, “Where are you going to put these people?”

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