Plans that have been many years in the making to fund and operate a misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge are officially dead.
The Louisiana Legislature dropped the ax on the plan Monday when it officially passed a bill that repeals a fee created in recent years to fund the jail, which was to be located in downtown Baton Rouge in the City Court building.
Since 2014, when the Legislature first passed a law to establish the fee, the bench warrant recall fee has generated more than $1.1 million designated specifically for the operation of a misdemeanor jail that law enforcement leaders said would help them crack down on the more than 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants.
But the political winds shifted dramatically last year, and what was once a popular idea backed unanimously by the Legislature, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council and law enforcement leaders turned into a controversial debate about the over-incarceration of poor, nonviolent offenders, the majority of whom were black.
Last year, when East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III requested authorization from the Metro Council to use the funds for a two-week trial of the misdemeanor jail, opponents lined up labeling the effort a “debtors’ prison.” The city had previously done the two-week trials, which were heralded as successes in previous years, since funding wasn’t available to open the jail around the clock.
The Metro Council ultimately decided against authorizing the money, with a majority of the members raising objections to the idea of jailing nonviolent scofflaws, particularly because most of the outstanding warrants are related to traffic violations.
Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Ted James sponsored House Bill 92 to repeal the fee when it became apparent the money wasn’t being used.
Moore opposed the bill, saying all along that he was hoping that officials would reconsider supporting it.
“I’m disappointed the funding is no longer there and that the council decided the way they did to never authorize the spending of the money,” Moore said Monday. “I believe it would have been extremely valuable last summer assisting in reducing the murder rates, and this summer coming, but I understand people’s minds have changed. So I’ve accepted that and moved on.”
Moore has said allowing misdemeanor offenders to run amuck without consequence feeds into a culture of lawlessness, and prosecuting misdemeanor offenders helps catch people who sometimes move on to become more violent.
The bill to rescind the fee was passed 98-0 in the House and 36-0 in the Senate.
The bill, which still requires the governor’s signature, allows those who paid the fee to seek refunds through the end of the year.
After that, half the money would be retained by the courts, while the other half would be divided between the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defenders’ Office.
The fee has been collected by the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, Baker City Court and Baton Rouge City and Family courts.
Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.