Four candidates for Lafayette Parish sheriff offered up different solutions to the future of the office Tuesday as they were peppered with questions from Kiwanis Club members about how to pay for operational improvements, how to combat illegal drugs and how to run the jail.
With at least 10 forums featuring the candidates scheduled this election season, Rick Chargois, Mark Garber, Chad Leger and John Rogers have had numerous opportunities to convey their platforms and opinions. The Kiwanis appearance — one of two forums scheduled this week — offered the club’s members an opportunity to ask their own questions but yielded little surprise from the now seasoned candidates.
All four candidates qualified last week for the Oct. 24 election, but each has been campaigning for months. Four-term Sheriff Mike Neustrom announced in January he would not seek re-election.
Candidates first were asked about both their knowledge of how the Sheriff’s Office is funded and how they plan to work with the existing budget.
Leger, the 12-year police chief of Scott, suggested the office needs to increase both pay and the number of employees but did not delve deep into how he would pay for an expansion.
Rogers, a litigation specialist for the Sheriff’s Office, spoke of evaluating and possibly consolidating existing programs for fiscal efficiency, as did Chargois, a former longtime State Police trooper.
Chargois also suggested reducing city-parish government expenditures by tapping more inmate labor. Garber, a former 15th Judicial District prosecutor who runs a private law firm, praised inmate work as a good business deal but didn’t specify whether he wants to expand the operation.
The Sheriff’s Office runs its own inmate enterprise division called Inmate Industries, which hires out workers to nonprofits and government agencies. It’s also got a growing manufacturing arm, producing items like trash bags, mattresses and air conditioner filters, ventures funded through money made on things like the inmates’ commissaries and phone calls.
On the matter of illegal drugs flowing through the parish, Rogers criticized drug prosecution in the 15th Judicial District, saying drug offenders were not adequately punished during former District Attorney Mike Harson’s tenure and that asserting multiagency cooperation is necessary to reduce drug crime.
Garber said “zero tolerance” enforcement is the key to “displacing” crime from the parish, while Leger suggested narcotics agents need to get back on the street. He said the number of agents should be more than doubled to at least 16-20 people.
Chargois suggested the Lafayette Metro Narcotics Task Force needs to be “reorganized” to include all communities within the parish and suggested federal involvement to prevent corruption.
All of the candidates said drugs entering the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center is a problem that needs remedying.
Rogers, a current Sheriff’s Office employee, said the agency is dealing with more than two dozen cases, including overdoses, of inmates smuggling in a synthetic drug called “spice” — an herblike matter sprayed with chemicals and smoked.
Garber pointed out that it’s often correctional employees or vendors who bring in the contraband, while Chargois stressed those responsible need to not only be fired but prosecuted. Leger again said “proper staffing” is one major way to combat the issue.
The Grand 16 Theatre shooting was mentioned, with one person asking the candidates their opinions on how to keep guns from mentally ill people.
Rogers spoke as a proponent for “better background checks” and the need to “put stop laws into effect,” also noting a need for mental health support for an offender once he or she is released from jail.
Chargois said the same, as did Leger, and both men suggested the need for a multi-jurisdictional effort to support mental health care initiatives for people in the criminal justice system.
Leger said the Juvenile Assessment Center, which serves as a diversion program for young offenders, also provides a model for how that system could work for adults.
Garber — who, more than once, called the theater shooting an act of “domestic terrorism” — said one major issue is the inconsistency of reporting to the National Crime Information Center. The computerized system is intended for agencies across jurisdictional lines to share crime-related information, but not all the information is input into the system, he said.
“It’s a national problem,” Garber said.
Asked whether they thought merging the Sheriff’s Office with the Lafayette Police Department could be a reasonable cost-saving measure, Rogers, Leger and Garber said no. Chargois didn’t explicitly reject the idea — it’s worked in some major cities, he said — but said the sheriff does not have the authority to initiate such a “very difficult process.”
The candidates are next scheduled to appear on Wednesday at a 6 p.m. forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The event is free and open to the public and will be held at the university’s Griffin Hall at Rex and Lewis streets.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.