Several Baton Rouge-area judges have been offering defendants on probation the option of getting a COVID vaccine to reduce or eliminate their community service hours, and reaction has largely been positive in the criminal justice system.
But one local district attorney thinks it's a bad practice and he doesn't want any part of it.
Community service obligations are typically attached to misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses.
Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Fred Crifasi was apparently the first area judge to offer community service credit if a defendant showed proof of COVID vaccination. At least two of his 19th JDC colleagues, Judges Tarvald Smith and Tiffany Foxworth, have followed suit.
In the case of a group of women charged in a fight last summer with a Chili's hostess who was trying to enforce the restaurant's coronavirus-related dining rules, Crifasi put three of the women on probation for a year after they recently pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disturbing the peace. He ordered each of them to perform 20 hours of court-approved community service, but he gave them the option of replacing those hours with proof of a COVID vaccination.
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Crifasi said he considers vaccination an act of community service at a time when Louisiana is in a "serious predicament" with rapidly rising coronavirus infections because of the more-infectious delta variant.
The judge said his actions have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with trying to save lives and keep people safe.
"It's not a mandate. It's completely optional," he said, adding that some defendants are now asking about the option as word has gotten out. "I'm not going to stop doing it. No one's made a legal objection to it."
Not all of the area district attorneys, however, support accepting proof of vaccination in lieu of court-ordered community service.
Tony Clayton, the district attorney for West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, said he is flat-out opposed to it.
"Just having it under the gauntlet of a judge with a robe on ordering it scares me. My office won't do it," the 18th Judicial District Attorney said.
"I haven't asked any judge to do it," Clayton added. "It's a person's constitutional right to determine if they want to get vaccinated. I would tread lightly on that."
"It's an honorable gesture," he acknowledged, "but I think its emanating from the wrong place."
Clayton's counterpart across the river, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, said offering those on probation the option of getting vaccinated in lieu of community service is simply part of a "combined community effort" to get COVID-19 and its far-reaching effects under control.
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"While my office respects every citizen's right to choose how they care for their health and safety, free of governmental reach, we strongly encourage the courts to offer those on probation to get the COVID-19 vaccine in place of community service," Moore said.
"Offering this choice does not imply a mandate. If accepted, it not only protects the offender, their family, and the public, it aids all who may come into contact with this person at future court appearances," he added.
Moore expressed concern "for the immediate future" as new COVID strains "provide a more significant threat to what we have experienced thus far."
"We have lost nearly a year of in-person, meaningful court hearings on serious cases. We can't continue to lose more valuable time away from resolving serious crimes and justice for all," he said.
Longtime Baton Rouge City Court Judge Yvette Alexander said she's not aware of any of her City Court colleagues following the lead of some of the 19th JDC judges but said she's certainly receptive to the idea.
"Anything that pushes them toward a vaccination is great," she said. "It's innovative. I would imagine my court would consider it in the future. I will consider it. We want to do whatever we can."
Scott Perrilloux, the district attorney for Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, said his prosecutors haven't reported to him that any judges in the 21st Judicial District are giving some defendants community service credit for getting vaccines but noted he is in favor of the practice.
"I don't have an issue with a judge offering that to an individual," Perrilloux said Tuesday while at home recovering from a mild case of the coronavirus. He said he was fully vaccinated in February.
"It's crazy times right now. This is some unique circumstances," he said. "I do not have an issue with it."
Perrilloux recently donated $2,500 of his campaign funds to COVID 100, a cash incentive program sponsored by the North Oaks Foundation, a nonprofit that supports North Oaks Health System, of Hammond. The program is geared toward handing out cash payments to those receiving vaccines.
HAMMOND — The promise of a crisp $50 bill was nice.
"We've got to get through this thing," he said, adding that the evidence is abundantly clear that vaccinations reduce hospitalizations.
Like Crifasi, 19th JDC Judges Tarvald Smith and Tiffany Foxworth are allowing some defendants to wipe some community service hours clean with a vaccination.
"I have done it. I'm not mandating it," Smith stressed. "I'm just giving them the option."
Smith said he too considers getting vaccinated a service to the community.
"You're serving the community," he said. "I don't have a problem with that."
Smith said he's offered the vaccine option to two or three defendants so far, but until they appear again before him for their probation reviews, he won't know if they accepted his offer.
Foxworth, a registered nurse, said she will allow each shot to account for five hours of community service.
"It's just an option," she said.
Foxworth noted that a vaccine cannot be used in lieu of litter detail in DWI cases because state law does not allow it.
Crifasi said if a probation candidate is inclined to get vaccinated, he will grant credit for that effort toward any requirement of community service.
"The amount of hours varies and depends on the person's circumstances," he said. "If a person is not inclined (to get vaccinated), they do not have to do it."