At 92-0, the vote of the state House rather emphatically ends the current debate over establishing a misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge.
A bill by state Rep. Ted James repeals the $50 fee that had raised about $1 million dedicated to the jail in City Court, intended to make scofflaws pay up for often long-overdue fines. The plan actually was scuttled by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, despite widespread community support for the notion that the system is broken and people won’t pay up so long as there is no credible threat from law enforcement.
Where do you take somebody if they haven’t paid their fine or shown up in court? The scofflaws may truly be so desperately poor they have no money at all, although those are probably the minority, but 100 percent of the offenders know there isn’t space in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison for them. As a concept, reopening the old jail space for misdemeanor offenders makes a lot of sense.
The debate in the House was not about the jail as a concept, but the fact is this appears to be the end of the issue for now.
Given the discord over the idea at the local level, it’s likely a done deal that the James measure ultimately is going to become law this session.
The debate in the House was over an amendment by state Rep. Steve Carter to divide the fund collected over the past two years; the original bill left the money with the courts that levied the fine, but Carter’s change also divides it with the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defenders Office.
That does little for the public defender crisis, or for the district attorney, really, as this is one-time money. The problems of funding the operations of justice remain, and Louisiana is getting international attention for its failures.
The ultimate result of the jail’s defeat? Lawlessness, rather than justice, probably having the worst impact on already troubled and majority-black neighborhoods.
At the Metro Council in October, the members formerly supportive of the city jail plan bolted as people protested a “debtors prison” in City Court.
This kind of racially tinged rhetoric finds a ready audience in today’s council, all too eager to respond to the agitators before it instead of the problem waiting outside that the council as a body needs to solve.
The city jail is not about Louisiana’s ridiculously high incarceration levels in parish and state prisons; this is about a court system that can’t enforce its warrants, with thousands outstanding every day.
Nobody wants a police state. Nobody wants a debtors prison. But failure to police small offenses is an outward and visible sign of a decline of order in society.
Amnesty days and other such expedients help with this problem for those genuinely broke and needing some relief.
Perhaps those can be expanded over time, but the real issue is enforcement.
After the October debate, Councilman Joel Boé urged a sensible compromise: “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 told The Advocate’s Rebekah Allen. “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.”
That makes sense, but the collapse of the jail plan points toward more dysfunction instead of a solution at City Hall.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.