A bill that would repeal a fee initially set to fund what critics called a debtors prison in East Baton Rouge Parish won approval, 92-0, Monday in the Louisiana House.
If the bill is successfully passed in the state Senate and signed by the governor, it would dash Baton Rouge law enforcement leaders’ plans to finance a misdemeanor jail as a means to reduce the roughly 100,000 misdemeanor violations on the books. The legislation also would require that about $1 million collected so far from the fee would be divided among courts that collected the money, the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defenders Office.
The measure, House Bill 92, originally called for all the dollars to be returned to the courts.
The fee is collected by the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, Baker City Court and Baton Rouge City and Family courts.
Under legislation passed a couple years ago, those courts are allowed to levy a $50 warrant fee to people to fail to appear in court for misdemeanor and traffic violations, which causes an arrest warrant to be issued.
When the offender is arrested, the warrant is recalled and the fee is levied.
The initial plan, backed by East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, was to use money raised by the fee to operate a misdemeanor jail.
However, local leaders later disagreed on whether the detention facility was a good idea, as opponents rallied saying it was immoral to target and jail mostly low-income, nonviolent offenders.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the bill, told the House that two years have passed without the jail opening and that the fee should be stopped.
However, the House, at the urging of Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, voted to redo how the money collected so far would be used.
Under Carter’s amendment, one-third of the money would be returned to the courts, one-third to Moore’s office and one-third for the Public Defenders Office, which is facing major budget problems here and statewide.
Carter said Moore told him his portion would be used for truancy and other problems.
James opposed the change.
“I did not file this bill to have a money grab,” he said. “I gave my word to the judges when I filed this bill.”
Carter countered that the money would be better used going to three areas, not just the judges.
The amendment passed the House 55-32.
The bill next faces action in the Senate.
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