We doubt that anyone is more aware of the problems with unreported crimes than district attorneys around the state.
Any barrier to reporting crime, particularly involving upfront payments, is problematic. But it’s also problematic to pay for the rising costs of the criminal justice system, as district attorneys also will tell you.
The two imperatives have collided in several parishes around the state, as district attorneys in St. John the Baptist, East Baton Rouge and Bossier have charged a “dismissal fee.” In St. John, for example, some women alleging domestic abuse subsequently want the charges dropped and pay a $100 fee for that service. Perhaps the abused wife wishes to make a new start with her husband or partner, as sometimes occurs.
What if, though, the cost of the fee becomes a discouragement for poor women to report abuse in the first place?
This is more than just a case of commercial businesses squeezing more money in the form of fees, like airlines charging for checked bags. This might well be counterproductive for the larger goal of deterring crime. Such a fee seems rare around the state but is still collected in at least the three parishes.
“It’s a really good way to drive up your homicide rate because somebody in immediate danger needs to call 911 and not think twice about it,” said Tulane University law professor Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor who has led efforts to reform the way domestic violence complaints are handled in New Orleans.
Tetlow told The Advocate that victims of abuse often recant, not because their initial report was false but out of fear of further violence. If changing their story is what it takes to escape more violence, she said, they should be able to do so without penalty.
“We all pay a great deal of taxes for that privilege,” she said. “Particularly in domestic violence, it can be too dangerous to follow through on prosecution. Even if you risk your life by testifying against your abuser, usually at best, he’s going to get a misdemeanor conviction and come home seriously angry. So often, the best you can do is call for help to keep yourself safe and alive but back down before he comes home.”
The dismissal fees in East Baton Rouge Parish are long-standing, District Attorney Hillar Moore noted. He said fewer than half of the requests result in a dropped prosecution and then only after a lengthy review process that may include required counseling for the alleged perpetrator and a deeper background check.
Often the alleged perpetrator turns out to be the one paying the fee. The money goes to the DA’s general fund, Moore said, but it doesn’t pay for the time that his staff puts into the follow-up process.
For a conscientious district attorney, that follow-up in domestic abuse cases is an important way to avoid that victim turning up seriously injured or dead in the future.
There also has been a larger national debate about fines and court costs, rising to meet the costs of the criminal justice system over the years. But those fines and fees, however needed, can become a debt trap for poor defendants.
Louisiana officials have long been troubled by issues of financing criminal justice. A dismissal fee helps DAs’ office budgets but may well be contrary to the goals of the system it aids in funding.