More than sixty percent of the roughly hundred thousand people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants at City Court are traffic offenders, people caught speeding or driving without an inspection sticker who didn’t bother to show up for a court date.
And while there are warrants out for violent misdemeanor defendants charged with domestic violence and simple battery, some of the most egregious repeat offenders — with more than a dozen warrants out for their arrest — are facing charges for relatively minor nonviolent crimes like noise ordinance violations and drinking in public.
For years, law enforcement leaders in Baton Rouge have advocated that the way to crack down on these scofflaws is a misdemeanor jail, a deterrent that will compel offenders to take care of their business, show up in court and pay their fines. They cite a staggering list of more than 104,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants from City Court, and another 60,000 more misdemeanor warrants from the 19th Judicial District Court.
There isn’t enough money to open the jail year round, but Baton Rouge public safety leaders are now pushing to open the jail intermittently throughout the year for periods of two weeks at a time.
But this crackdown push comes at a time of intensified scrutiny on how criminal justice systems deal with the kind of low-level offenders Baton Rouge leaders suggest belong in jail, at least for a spell. Advocates across the country have questioned the policies of scores of municipalities, arguing they are unnecessarily targeting misdemeanor offenders, people who often are poor and can’t afford to pay fines. In many cases, people rack up fine after fine, but advocates say they are largely trapped by their inability to pay before ending up in jail.
In a March report, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, for issuing tens of thousands of arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses as a means to collect money to pay for city government. The report particularly condemned the court for using arrest warrants as a means of securing payments.
Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, said a proposed misdemeanor jail to lock up non-violent offenders is “bad public policy and a poor use of taxpayer funds.”
“We know these people aren’t dangerous because the police had the opportunity to arrest them and did not. The police chose to write a citation because this is not a dangerous person,” she said. “What the city is proposing is locking up a bunch of non-dangerous people over nothing but money.”
Most law enforcement officials rejected the notion that the motivation behind the jail is to collect money. But Constable Reginald Brown, who would run the facility, said he felt it was important to compel people to pay their debts.
“It’s vitally important,” he said. “We’re leaving a lot of money on the table because we’re not collecting it and don’t have the resources to do it.”
Lack of consequences
People arrested on felony charges are brought to East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. Officers have the discretion to book misdemeanor offenders into parish prison as well, which most often occurs in arrests for physical violence and always in cases of driving under the influence. But considering the Parish Prison is already so overcrowded that the Sheriff’s Office sends hundreds of prisoners to other jails out of the parish, most misdemeanor offenders are simply issued citations that call for court appearances. And if people don’t show up for court, law enforcement has scarce opportunity or resources to hold them accountable.
“It seems that there is a certain mindset that we don’t need to comply with the law because no one is going to come get you,” said Mark Dumaine, chief of administration for the District Attorney’s Office.
Currently, there’s a detention center in the basement of City Court in downtown Baton Rouge that can hold 150 people.
The small jail, which closes at 1:30 p.m. on weekdays and is closed on weekends, is mostly used as a holding place for people who are ultimately moved to Parish Prison.
In 2011 and 2012, the city ran pilot programs to open the jail for misdemeanor offenders for two weeks at a time. It cost between $50,000 and $100,000 to open and staff the jail around the clock.
The first year these stints generated $191,000 in court fees and fines paid over the trial period. The second year, the court raised $184,000 for the two-week trial.
During those periods, deputies tracked down top-offending misdemeanor violators. Brown said the people targeted were repeat offenders with multiple bench warrants, mostly people wanted on more serious offenses, like fights or domestic violence, because they posed the greatest threat to the public. But considering the fact that the majority of the outstanding warrants are traffic related, Brown said, those offenders were arrested as well.
Moving forward, the city-parish, backed by the District Attorney’s office, is asking for five more two-week trials top open the downtown jail around-the-clock to wrangle misdemeanor offenders.
The funds, $500,000 in total, would come from fees set up by the state Legislature in recent years specifically designed to fund a misdemeanor jail in Baton Rouge. Since August 2014, when the fee went into effect, the fund has collected approximately $686,000.
Brown said it would cost more than $2 million annually to run a misdemeanor jail. He also said funds are necessary to improve its crumbling infrastructure and outfit it with resources necessary to hold people overnight on a regular basis.
For example, there’s no cafeteria in the downtown jail, so when people are held overnight they are fed McDonald’s cheeseburgers and fries from down the road.
During the trials, Brown said he can only hold violators in the city jail for two days before they have to be moved to Parish Prison.
The vast majority of those held in the misdemeanor jail would pay their fines or bond out of jail within 24 hours, Dumaine said. Based on previous round-ups, he expected about 20 percent of people brought in would have other more serious warrants, ones that required an appearance before a judge, or additional felony warrants that required their transfer to parish prison.
Dumaine also noted that a study of both trial programs found that the daily average of violent activity reported in the city dropped 35 percent in 2012 and 24 percent in 2011 while the misdemeanor jails were open. The report, co-authored by LSU criminologist Ed Shihadeh, suggested that the “widespread knowledge that the enforcement has intensified is enough to deter many from committing crime.”
Social cost of jail
But justice reform advocates question whether jailing non-violent offenders is worth the social cost, saying that many people with outstanding warrants are likely avoiding payment because they are simply too poor to pay.
“For wealthier people, payment of these fines is not a problem and the city may get their money through this program,” Schwartzmann said. “However, the vast majority of people who do not pay fines are poor.”
People who don’t appear in court because they are unable to pay the fees then get caught in a cycle where they are assessed additional fines and bench warrants for missing court.
The Ferguson report, launched by the federal government after last summer’s unrest following a police officer shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, noted that a large number of warrants issued by the court was due “exclusive to the fact that the court uses arrest warrants and the threat of arrest as its primary tool for collecting outstanding fines for municipal code violations.”
The report noted that arrest warrants were not being issued in the interest of public safety, and that often offenders were being arrested because they had multiple warrants stemming from one nonviolent situation that branched into multiple charges for failing to appear in court or paying their fines.
Schwartzmann said jailing people already living in poverty, even for a short period of time, can cost them their jobs, housing or child care.
“We don’t want people to be fired, evicted or worse because they didn’t have money for a traffic ticket,” she said.
Alec Karakatsanis, a co-founder of Equal Justice Under the Law, is spearheading a federal lawsuit filed in Orleans Parish that claims the Criminal District Court is breaking the law by issuing arrest warrants leading to jail time for convicts who are unable to pay their fees or fines. The plaintiffs were denied indigency hearings to determine their ability to pay.
Karakatsanis said the Baton Rouge proposal is similarly “morally reprehensible” and characterized it as moving in the opposite direction of more progressive policies that are aiming to reduce incarceration levels.
“The United States puts more people in cages than anyone in the world, and Louisiana is the outlier to that,” he said. “When you talk about putting people in jail for not paying traffic offenses and other misdemeanor offenses, that’s outrageous.”
He said Baton Rouge leaders should instead try investing in something like a text message system to remind people of their court dates.
Jon Wool, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New Orleans, said other jurisdictions also sometimes issue “second-chance summonses” instead of moving straight to arrest warrants.
Unlike the situation in the New Orleans lawsuit, the population at issue is pre-conviction. City Court Chief Judge Suzan Ponder said the judges offer poor people who come to court extensions and partial payment programs. They also can offer community service for those who can’t afford to pay, something that was not offered in Ferguson.
But those offers aren’t on the table unless people show up for court, Ponder said, which is the problem.
“If people would come in, if they would do what is required by the law, if they would drive with a driver’s license, or have proof of insurance, then they wouldn’t have to come to court,” Ponder said. “If people would simply comply with the law we wouldn’t have the misdemeanor problems that we have.”
In past years, City Court has offered amnesty opportunities, allowing many nonviolent offenders the opportunity to clear warrants by paying fines.
Ponder said it’s a difficult undertaking, but she would be open to another amnesty program.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said law enforcement leaders are sensitive to issues of over incarceration, saying he supports amnesty opportunities. But he added that misdemeanor infractions are still violations of the law.
“I don’t want to put anyone in jail,” Moore said. “But right now we have to have compliance with the law, we’ve got to get our warrants cleared up and we’ve got to get our system cleared.”