BR.72hours0036.101619 bf.jpg

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.

Three months have passed since East Baton Rouge judges agreed to implement a new rule aimed at getting defendants through the local criminal justice system without inordinate delays. Now the judges are walking back the expedited arraignment process but are hoping to maintain its benefits — increased fairness within the courts and significant savings of taxpayer dollars.

It remains to be seen whether those benefits will continue, and advocates are concerned that won't be the case.

The expedited process, which was launched in October, calls for all 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 process replaced an older system that kept people waiting on average between five and 12 weeks before ever stepping foot in a courtroom or being formally charged with a crime, a delay widely considered unacceptable. 

Getting people into court within 72 hours was an attempt to bring Baton Rouge into line with other jurisdictions across the country. But 19th Judicial District judges said the change created confusion in their courtrooms, overwhelming courthouse staff and overshadowing the program's benefits.

"It is mass chaos. You have no idea who's there or why they're there," Judge Bonnie Jackson said. "It just got to be too much. It's crushing the system."

The judges met behind closed doors Wednesday and approved a series of proposed tweaks that essentially place the onus on prosecutors to decide when defendants are arraigned instead of imposing a blanket rule. 

Advocates are worried this could eliminate some key outcomes of the expedited process, which has led to a significant increase in court appearance rates and was saving money through a reduced jail population and fewer bench warrants being issued for people who missed their arraignment hearings.

"The new 72-hour arraignment process has already saved the parish more than $215,000 and resulted in hundreds of innocent people being released who otherwise would have languished for months in cages, separated from their families, jobs and communities," said Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "East Baton Rouge officials should rally around that incredible success and build upon it, not look for ways to weaken it."

The district attorney's office had estimated that based on the first eight weeks, the expedited arraignments would save the city about $2.5 million each year — money that could be funneled back into the underfunded local court system. 

Under the judges' modifications, however, the expedited process will happen only for people who don't post bond. In those cases, it's up to prosecutors when a billing decision is made, which will trigger the court to schedule an arraignment hearing. Those hearings will no longer automatically be scheduled within 72 hours.

Others defendants who do post bond will receive a "date certain" before their release from jail, directing them to appear in court for their arraignment — about eight weeks later when the judge who set their bond is back on duty. 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. 

The judges were careful to emphasize they're not opposed to the goals of the expedited arraignments, saying in a statement Thursday that they "have been and continue to be supportive of a prompt but thorough initiation of criminal cases."

"We're not obstructionists. We weren't trying to scrap the new system," Jackson said. "We just saw what the problems were and realized this was the best way to fix them."

But Lindsay Blouin, the parish's deputy chief public defender, said that while she's relieved the judges didn't eliminate the system entirely, she's concerned the modifications could  result in delays for some of the most vulnerable defendants — "those citizens who are in jail, not because of a violent offense, but because they are too poor to afford the monetary bond set in their case." 

She said one benefit of the 72-hour process was having everyone in the courtroom right after a person's arrest, so that the judge, prosecutor and public defender were all on the same page from the beginning, allowing them to have a conversation about each defendant's needs, from mental health assessments to bond reduction requests. 

"We are concerned that those conversations will stop happening," Blouin said. "Justice will be delayed, and those delays cost this parish millions of dollars in over-detention each year."

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III spearheaded the shift to expedited arraignments, which came following months of planning and research into practices in other jurisdictions. Moore said Thursday his office remains committed to pursuing charging decisions within 72 hours whenever possible, even though it's no longer required.

He said a major accomplishment that made the 72-hour rule possible in the first place was getting local law enforcement agencies to turn over booking documents to prosecutors within 24 hours of the arrest. That will continue to happen, allowing prosecutors to make their decisions as quickly as possible, Moore said. 

The district attorney and some judges are supportive of eventually establishing a separate arraignment court with a judge or commissioner, prosecutor and public defender assigned to that role full time. Jackson said other jurisdictions with faster arraignment systems have such speciality courts that exclusively handle first appearances, rather than "superimposing these requirements onto existing dockets" and overburdening courthouse staff. She said that also could work in Baton Rouge, if officials can figure out how to fund the additional courtroom. 

Moore agreed. He said he's hoping a private donor or grant opportunity will come along, especially now that the 19th JDC has dipped its toes into expedited arraignments and demonstrated the widespread potential benefits.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.