After four full months of East Baton Rouge Parish judges imposing a new fee on people who fail to appear in court for traffic and misdemeanor offenses, the city-parish already has raised more than $160,000.
That money is specifically earmarked, per the direction of state legislation passed this summer, for a misdemeanor jail.
But there has yet to be any movement by city officials to open a jail anytime soon. There’s no plan in place. And some question whether the fee will generate enough money to fund an around-the-clock jail as originally envisioned.
For years, law enforcement leaders have complained that residents are regularly flouting court appearances for misdemeanor summonses and traffic offenses, and the city is limited in its ability to make people take misdemeanor penalties seriously.
A jail would allow law enforcement to jail misdemeanor offenders instead of just writing summonses.
There are 103,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants in Baton Rouge, said City Court Administrator Lon Norris. That number has reached as high as 160,000 in previous years.
This summer, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring courts in Baton Rouge to impose warrant recall fees ranging from $25 to $50 on people who fail to appear in court for misdemeanor and traffic offenses. The fees are to be collected to fund the misdemeanor jail, which will be set up in the downtown city jail in the basement of the City Courthouse.
The city jail holds up to 150 people but is currently being used as a temporary holding and processing center for about 20 people a day, during business hours Monday through Friday.
Metro Councilman Trae Welch, a proponent of an around-the-clock misdemeanor jail, said officials already should have started crafting an operations plan and timeline for the new jail.
“We should have had a plan on how to use the money before we asked people to start paying for it,” Welch said. “I’d like to see an implementation plan done by now, or it’s just like we’re taking people’s money.”
He said now that the city-parish has collected more than four months of fees, it should have an idea of what revenues will be available annually to run the jail.
The fees come from the 19th Judicial District, Family Court and from city courts in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary. Baton Rouge City Court generated by far the greatest amount in fees so far — about $20,000 per month.
Recent estimates to operate a 24-hour misdemeanor jail have ranged from $1 million to $2.2 million annually. Most of those costs involve hiring about 24 new deputies to staff the facility, said Constable Reginald Brown, who oversees the downtown jail.
Assuming the funds generated in the first four months stay on track, an annual budget for the jail would be about $480,000.
Revenues collected from the fees also are expected to decrease over time, because the misdemeanor jail is expected to deter people from missing their court appearances.
Brown said no one has given him any directives or indications that there are plans in motion to create a city jail. He also said he doesn’t think it’s the most prudent use of funds.
He noted that the jail is in need of repairs and maintenance.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said officials are waiting to see how much money is generated before they implement a plan.
He also said he questioned whether the fee would generate enough funds to run the jail full time. But he said it’s possible they could open up the jail for quarterly round-ups to compel people to resolve outstanding warrants.
In 2011 and 2012, officials opened the doors to the city jail for a trial run of housing misdemeanor offenders.
Over a three-week period in 2012, the city-parish collected about $184,000 from people resolving their outstanding warrants to avoid jail time.