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Flanked by Judge Trudy White, left, and Judge Don Johnson, right, District Attorney Hillar Moore III, at lectern, explains the process during a press conference addressing the new 72-hour arraignment process in the 19th JDC Tuesday Oct. 15, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. This means people will be either charged with a crime or released within three days of their arrest, instead of sitting around in jail waiting for over a month before prosecutors decided whether to move forward with their cases.

Supporters of a new expedited arraignment process in Baton Rouge say it's already increasing fairness in the local criminal justice system while saving taxpayer dollars, but some 19th Judicial District judges aren't entirely happy with how it's working and are proposing changes. 

The judges met behind closed doors Wednesday afternoon to discuss the program, which calls for defendants to appear in court and be informed of the charges against them — or be released if prosecutors decide not to move forward — within 72 hours of their arrest. The old system kept people waiting on average between five and 12 weeks before ever stepping foot in a courtroom. 

The change in procedures came in October after several months of planning. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III released data earlier this week showing that appearance rates have increased significantly since then, and taxpayers are saving money through a reduced jail population and fewer bench warrants being issued.

Both Moore's office and the parish's public defender's office have expressed a strong commitment to continuing the expedited arraignments. But most of the 19th JDC criminal judges have declined to share their views. It appears they're unhappy with some aspects of the process, which impose additional burdens on the judiciary. 

Judge Bonnie Jackson and Judge Fred Crifasi acknowledged the group is proposing some changes following their discussions in the closed door meeting, but they declined to provide specifics on what they think needs to be changed and why the changes are needed. The group's recommendations will be voted on next week at a full meeting of the court's criminal and civil judges. 

Chief Criminal Judge Beau Higginbotham didn't respond to a request for comment. 

Judge Don Johnson — the only one who has publicly endorsed the new arraignment process — said the proposed tweaks would essentially leave it up to the DA's office whether defendants are arraigned within 72 hours, instead of creating a blanket rule.

If the recommendations are approved, defendants will appear via video conference for their bond hearings before whichever judge is on duty that week — a role that rotates among the eight criminal judges. Then prosecutors will continue making charging decisions within 72 hours. And in cases where charges aren't filed, the person will be released from jail at that time without having to appear in court.

When charges ultimately are filed, the defendant will be arraigned before the judge assigned to their case. Judges are assigned according to when the crime occurred, which often coincides with the judge on duty at the time of their arrest.

Others defendants who post bond before a charging decision will receive a "date certain" to appear in court for their arraignment upon their release from jail — about eight weeks later. That will eliminate the problem of people being released with no future court dates assigned, but it won't require those hearings to happen within 72 hours.

Officials have said the new process has already resulted in a significant increase in the number of people showing up for their arraignment hearings after posting bond, from about half to almost 96 percent. That means both the court and local law enforcement agencies are saving money because fewer bench warrants and subpoenas are being issued and served when people fail to appear.

Moore estimated the expedited arraignments will save the city about $2.5 million each year — money that will be funneled back into the underfunded local court system. Johnson said perhaps that savings could ultimately be used to create a "formal arraignment court" with a judge, prosecutor and public defender assigned full time.

In a statement released Wednesday evening, Johnson said he believes the changes, even after the judges' proposed tweaks, will provide "basic constitutional protections arrested and involved in crime, reestablish and maintain public safety where needed, and assure and promote procedural fairness." He said he hopes this will establish East Baton Rouge as a statewide leader in criminal justice reform and helps build trust in the parish's court system.

Moore said he anticipated the judges would have tweaks and is hoping all players can come together and improve the new system without losing its benefits.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.