Juvenile Court judges push for move to downtown Baton Rouge courthouse, claim safety is a concern at current building _lowres (copy)

The 19th Judicial District Courthouse is located on North Blvd. in downtown Baton Rouge. 

A new pre-trial diversion program received a boost in funding Wednesday to help pay for continued efforts to place qualified offenders in treatment rather than jail.

The MacArthur Foundation has awarded $350,000 to The Baton Rouge Area Foundation to continue work begun last year, when it gave BRAF $50,000 to launch a pilot program.

BRAF has partnered with the District Attorney, Sheriff, 21st Judicial District and Public Defender to identify non-violent offenders with mental health and substance abuse issues. Candidates can avoid jail time if they agree to follow a program that could include a stay in a halfway house, a job search, counseling and drug monitoring.

Unlike the DA's existing program, offenders can qualify for BRAF's diversion even if they have a criminal record. The first three graduates completed the program in July.

The $350,000 grant is a one-time award, but BRAF intends to reapply to future funding rounds.

"This grant substantiates recognition that newer preventive and intervention strategies are essential to reducing our jail population, including our past work in redirecting and diverting those defendants with substance use and abuse challenges and mental illness into highly effective treatment alternatives," said Judge Don Johnson.

The announcement of the grant came on the same day that an array of local leaders, in a separate press conference, voiced their support for a proposed mental health crisis center that would serve a similar population of nonviolent offenders.

Known as the Bridge Center, it would serve people who might otherwise end up in jail because of incidents stemming from mental health and substance abuse issues. East Baton Rouge Parish residents will vote Dec. 8 on a new property tax to fund the center.

Bridge Center Chairwoman and former Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert said the proposed tax would cost $1.50 a month over 10 years for the average homeowner with a property valued at $200,000.

"We are not equipped in Parish Prison to deal with (mental illness) on the magnitude that's required. …Prison is not the answer," said East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, noting a significant increase in mentally ill inmates following widespread closures of state psychiatric institutions several years ago. "This is something we need to address in our community. We can't just close our eyes to it and … hope it goes away."

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