An inmate walks down a hallway in the old part of EBR Parish Prison in this 2016 file photograph.

Bail records are still being faxed from the 19th Judicial District courthouse to East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, a sometimes slow and unreliable practice that advocates argue leaves people stuck in jail because of paperwork delays.

The issue was one of several discussed during a symposium Monday about Baton Rouge's cash bail system. The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition organized the event, which was held at the Carver Branch Library in Old South Baton Rouge.

Niles Haymer, a local criminal defense attorney, told the group about his recent experiences with a client who was arrested after deputies pulled him over and found marijuana.

His client also had a gun that he was licensed to carry. Louisiana law includes a specific prohibition for carrying a weapon while in possession of controlled substances, even if the person is licensed to carry a firearm.

Haymer said the man was booked into jail around 5 a.m., with bail set at $12,000 later that morning. He would need to come up with about $1,500 to pay a bail bondsman and be released. Haymer didn't disclose the man's name to protect his privacy.

"You would think that once I get to court … I would be able to get my client out of jail by noon. But that's not how it works at the 19th JDC, even for people with paid lawyers," Haymer said. "I have news for you. The way our system works in East Baton Rouge Parish — it is broken. It is outdated and we need change."

Haymer said the man's family hired a bondsman and paid the required amount around noon. But another 10 hours would pass before he was finally released from jail.

During that time, Haymer was calling the courthouse's Bail Bonds Project office and the jail, trying to figure out why his client's paperwork hadn't made it from one to the other. The answer was that their fax machines weren't communicating.

"That's how antiquated the system is at Parish Prison," Haymer said. "It's a very grueling process that I believe nobody really understands until their family member is going through it."

Maybe the arrested person has responsibilities like picking up a child from school, or getting to work before their shift starts — things they can't do while sitting in jail, Haymer said. "People's freedom hangs in the balance over whether you can find a faxed piece of paper."

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office confirmed that the jail receives bond amounts and conditions via fax during normal business hours. On nights and weekends, an employee of the Bail Bond Project who works in the jail hand delivers the paperwork to booking staff.

Sheriff's office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said the booking office could receive the records via email and had communicated that to the Bail Bond Project at the courthouse. But a representative for the Bail Bond Project  said Monday he's not aware of problems with the current practice of faxing documents. He said if the fax connection was down in the past, the office has emailed the documents, although that's an exception and not the usual routine.

Haymer and others pointed to the fax system as just one example of how the pretrial system in East Baton Rouge is stacked against defendants long before they're ever convicted of a crime and regardless of the seriousness of their charges.

Advocates did praise some recent changes, most notably the new arraignment process implemented earlier this month that calls for prosecutors to announce a charging decision within 72 hours of an arrest.

The people impacted most are those who can't afford to post bond because they would otherwise spend that time sitting in jail, waiting to see if the case against them would even move forward. Before the change, the average wait time was five to 12 weeks for those being held in Parish Prison.

The East Baton Rouge District Attorney's office spearheaded the change, along with the public defender's office and 19th Judicial District judges.

Criminal justice reform advocates are hoping the momentum from that effort will pave the way for additional improvements. One big future goal is to eliminate cash bail, which critics argue unfairly targets the poor and prioritizes profit margins instead of focusing on public safety. 

"Judges have used money as a proxy for dangerousness," said Thomas Harvey, justice project director for Advancement Project, a national civil rights advocacy group based in Washington. "That's a failure of our legal system."

Harvey and other representatives of the organization spoke during the symposium Monday along with local leaders and activists, illuminating issues with the pretrial system in East Baton Rouge — including an observation that most bail hearings last only about 35 seconds and provide no real opportunities for defendants to ask questions or interact with the judge.

Fines and fees, including for private companies assigned to monitor people released on bond, also place a burden on defendants who often are already struggling financially, and the result is a vicious cycle of crime and poverty, advocates said.

But they said the good news is that other cities and states have already taken steps to either reduce or eliminate cash bail, suggesting bigger changes could be on the horizon even for places like Baton Rouge.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.