A bill in the Legislature could spell the end of a proposed misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge that has roiled both justice reform advocates — who have cast it as a debtors prison — and law enforcement leaders for the past year.
Democratic Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James is proposing House Bill 92, which would repeal the warrant recall fee assessed by courts that is designated specifically for the operations of a misdemeanor jail.
From August 2014, when the fee was initiated, through Thursday, the fund has collected almost $1.1 million in fees from the various courts in the parish, according to East Baton Rouge Parish officials. However, the funds have sat dormant because local leaders are at odds over the propriety of a detention center that targets mostly nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders.
James’ bill would stop the collection of the fee and return all of the dollars to the respective courts that collected them. It effectively would kill any hopes of local law enforcement leaders who have advocated for the misdemeanor jail for the past several years as a means to get a handle on the roughly 160,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants.
Officials like Hillar Moore III, East Baton Rouge Parish district attorney, say a misdemeanor jail is a tool that deters misdemeanor offenses and compels those offenders to pay their fines and fees.
Misdemeanor offenders, which include traffic violators all the way up to domestic violence abusers, are typically issued citations, and if those people don’t show up in court to face the consequences, then law enforcement has scarce resources to hold them accountable.
The concept was once a popular one — championed by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council and law enforcement leaders who celebrated the success of two-week pilot programs they ran in 2011 and 2012 to demonstrate the impact of a misdemeanor jail.
Both the Metro Council and the Legislature unanimously passed laws in recent years to establish the recall fees in an attempt to fund the downtown jail year-round. But when Moore asked to use the funds last year to fund more two-week installments of the misdemeanor jail — in a downtown detention facility in the Baton Rouge City Court building — it was met with newfound resistance from opponents who likened it to a debtors prison that targets poor people for not being able to pay off their fines.
Ultimately, the Metro Council refused to use the dollars for their designated purposes and has been working with the District Attorney’s Office to move forward with amnesty day programs as an alternative to reducing the backlog of tickets on the books.
James’ bill was scheduled for debate in a House committee on Thursday morning, but he deferred the bill, saying he promised to meet with Moore first to discuss it.
“I told him I’d meet with him to discuss it, but I didn’t commit to not running the bill at all,” James said. “I think the City Council debated this at length and they did not approve the misdemeanor jail, and we don’t need to continue to assess this fee if the monies are not going to be used for the intended purpose.”
James said his motivation is unrelated to the debate about the value of the misdemeanor jail itself. But he said some judges have expressed concern to him about the fee, given that the money has gone untouched for more than a year.
Moore said he will oppose the bill because he thinks some form of a misdemeanor facility is “still critical and viable.”
He said he’s met with opponents of the proposal and worked with them to assure them the jail wouldn’t be used to target traffic violators, which make up about 60 percent of the misdemeanor citations.
“I believe that the concerns of those who recently opposed the bill have been addressed,” Moore said. “I believe that should the matter be brought back to the council, it would pass.”
He also called the bill a “money grab for those who are behind the filing of this bill.”
Metro Councilman Trae Welch, a longtime proponent of the proposal, said in an interview that the concept has become a tough sell to the public.
“I think when they started referring to it as a jail, they misunderstood this as them trying to have additional bed space to keep people locked up,” Welch said. He said the true benefit is that misdemeanor offenders who do get booked into prison would be kept away from more dangerous felons and would be detained for much shorter periods of time.
“It’s being painted as something completely opposite of what it actually does,” he said.
Baton Rouge state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle previously sat on the Metro Council and opposed the misdemeanor jail. She said she supports James’ bill.
“We’ve got to find another way as an alternative to the misdemeanor jail,” Marcelle said. “We got to meet with the judges, and we have to all get in a room and stop overincarcerating people, sentencing nonviolent offenders.”
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