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Judge Don Johnson speaks during discussion of a report from the Finance Department about the utilization of the Industrial Tax Exempt Program (ITEP) in East Baton Rouge Parish.

William Street was issued a bench warrant in 2017 for failing to show up at the 19th Judicial District courthouse to resolve his traffic tickets, but it’s not like he didn’t have a good excuse. He was locked up in Livingston Parish jail at the time on unrelated charges.

Street wouldn't find out about the bench warrant until he was set to be released in October. Instead of going home to his family, Street found himself transferred from Livingston to East Baton Rouge Parish Prison because of his failure to appear on the outstanding traffic matters. 

District Judge Don Johnson and his staff with the 19th Judicial District Court's traffic division are now taking steps to eliminate the inefficiencies that keep people like Street incarcerated longer than necessary due to minor infractions and a lack of coordination between different jurisdictions. 

Street appeared before Johnson via video conference from Parish Prison last month. The judge approved his release from jail and gave him extra time to resolve the traffic offenses, which included a suspended license. 

"If I had known you were in custody, we would have resolved this already," Johnson said, hinting at the benefits of his new project — one of several aimed at streamlining the parish's judicial system. 

The Inmate Warrant Alignment Program seeks to identify people being held in jails and prisons across the state who have also been issued bench warrants or other detainers for outstanding traffic matters in East Baton Rouge.

The program's ultimate goal is to address those matters via video conference from wherever the people are incarcerated instead of having them brought to Parish Prison upon their release. 

"If someone has to be transported from Shreveport to Baton Rouge for that traffic ticket, imagine the cost for them to resolve these minor infractions," Johnson said. "We're trying to make these systems more efficient and more effective." 

Dennis Grimes, warden of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, said he welcomes the change, which would mean fewer people cycling through his jail.

The Rev. Alexis Anderson, leader of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition, said the program is another step toward protecting people from excessive negative impacts during their involvement with the local criminal justice system.

Johnson's office sent a letter to more than 100 Louisiana jails and prisons last month, asking the facilities to tell their inmates about the program and help facilitate video conferencing when needed. That technology isn't available everywhere, but Johnson said he's hopeful it will become more common.

Inmates with outstanding traffic matters in East Baton Rouge can have a relative or friend contact the 19th JDC traffic division on their behalf, or send a letter letting courthouse staff know they're incarcerated somewhere else.

Johnson said this is a first step. He hopes ultimately to create a statewide traffic bench warrant database that would eliminate the problem entirely. 

"We have to be more proactive," the judge said.

He noted that language in state law dictates when courts should issue a bench warrant, which specifies "intentional failure to appear." From a philosophical standpoint, he said, it's inappropriate to issue bench warrants for incarcerated people.

Johnson's program is the latest effort to eliminate outdated and inefficient practices in East Baton Rouge's criminal justice system.

The biggest recent change took place in early October when, after months of planning, officials implemented a new arraignment process that calls for defendants to appear in court and be presented with the charges against them — or be released if prosecutors decide not to move forward — within 72 hours of their arrest.

The deadline limits the amount of time people spend behind bars waiting for a decision from prosecutors, which averaged five to 12 weeks before the change. 

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.