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Main entrance gate near administration Building at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

It's not unusual for someone to be arrested in East Baton Rouge Parish but never charged with a crime, and local officials are implementing a new process aimed at limiting the time people spend behind bars while waiting for a decision from prosecutors on whether their case will move forward.

The change is part of a larger push to reduce the parish's outsized jail population and to streamline inefficiencies in the judicial system.

A group of criminal judges for the 19th Judicial District on Wednesday approved a faster arraignment process that calls for defendants to appear in court and be presented with the charges against them — or be released if prosecutors decide not to move forward — within 72 hours of their arrest. That's a huge improvement over current practices, which keep people waiting on average between five and 12 weeks before ever stepping foot in a courtroom.

The new policy came after months of discussions and planning spurred by the East Baton Rouge District Attorney's Office with cooperation from other players, including the public defender's office and local law enforcement agencies.

Advocates and officials have long agreed that spending more than a month between arrest and arraignment is unacceptable. People who can't afford to post bond end up sitting in jail during that time, in some cases watching their lives be upended: Jobs, housing and even children could be lost before prosecutors decide whether to press charges.

"It is entirely possible to lose everything in that amount of time," the Rev. Alexis Anderson, a local advocate for jail reform, said in an interview Thursday. "This is going to make a huge difference."

In the majority of cases under the new system, the decision of whether to press charges will be made within three days.

Officials have predicted this will speed up the court process by two months on average, decreasing the Parish Prison population and saving the local government more than $1 million a year in jail costs.

"While these savings are important, far more important is moving our system closer to the constitutional goals of speedy trials and lawful detention times," proponents of the change wrote in a proposal presented to the district judges for their consideration. The proposal also notes the change would "leave no defendant behind to be 'lost' in prison."

Those defendants are some of the parish's most disadvantaged residents, Anderson and others noted.

"The only people sitting in our jail are the poor, people of color and those who have mental and physical disabilities," she said. "People with money don't do jail. They do bond."

The approval of the new policy came after the judges repeatedly tabled the discussion over the past several months. Chief Criminal Judge Beau Higginbotham didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he and the parish public defender, Mike Mitchell, were present in the judges' meeting Wednesday when the group voted. 

The change goes well beyond the state law requirements, which are meant to ensure a speedy trial but nonetheless allow prosecutors 45 days to file charges against people being held behind bars after a misdemeanor arrest, 60 days for felonies and 120 days for the most serious offenses like murder and aggravated rape.

"We're putting a big burden on ourselves when the law says we don't have to, but we think it's the right thing to do," Moore said. "This is designed so that no one gets left behind."

Moore's office reviewed practices in other districts nationwide and determined that filing formal charges within 48 hours is the "gold standard" for prosecution. He said his team decided 48 hours isn't feasible for East Baton Rouge, but 72 hours is possible.

Lindsay Blouin, the parish's deputy chief public defender, said it's a "great first step in creating a fair criminal justice system in Baton Rouge." She noted that appearing before a judge within a few days means everyone in the courtroom will be made aware of the defendant's needs and circumstances right from the beginning: employment or education status, family responsibilities, mental health issues or struggles with substance abuse.

"Our belief is that delayed justice is justice denied," she said. "I'm really hopeful that in taking this first step forward, we see people getting back to their families that much faster, but with the services and support they need to enhance their stability."

Moore said a big hurdle has been getting law enforcement agencies to provide his office with arrest reports and other records immediately after a suspect is booked into jail. That gives prosecutors enough time to make a charging decision within 24 hours, which is another part of the plan. He said most agencies in the parish have already stepped up and are doing their part to move the process along.

Both the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, the two largest law enforcement agencies in the parish, have expressed their support of the change.

People will now be arraigned before whichever judge is on duty at the time — similar to the process for setting bail — but not the judge who will ultimately be assigned their case. That means changing schedules for criminal judges, but it also means that when people are arrested, their families and defense attorneys will know exactly where and when to expect their first court appearance: Someone arrested on a Sunday would be arraigned Wednesday, arrested Monday and arraigned Thursday, and so on. 

People arrested on serious crimes that require a grand jury indictment would still appear before a judge within 72 hours, not for arraignment but to be informed of their next court date, Moore said. Other cases in which prosecutors need more time, often waiting for DNA or ballistics testing, will follow that same process.

Officials said the faster arraignments will start happening within the next couple weeks and will create a heavy workload, especially within the first few months. After a while they hope to see cases being resolved faster and people spending less time in jail on minor offenses. 

Research shows East Baton Rouge detains people at a rate far higher than other Louisiana parishes, including New Orleans and Lafayette — a fact that both criminal justice leaders and advocates have called alarming. Parish Prison holds on average about 1,700 local inmates. The vast majority are held there pretrial, awaiting a resolution in their criminal cases.

Officials hope to see the jail population decrease in the coming months. That anticipated reduction factors into ongoing discussions about replacing the outdated and inadequate detention facility. Past efforts to raise money for a new jail have failed in part because leaders can't agree on how big it should be.

"I can't stress enough how much this is a game changer," Anderson said. "Once we start seeing the positive impacts, we can start understanding that truth be told, we don't need a bigger jail. We need a better justice system."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.