A bill that would limit the amount of time the state can jail a person before filing criminal charges narrowly advanced Thursday from Louisiana's House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice.
Under current law, a person can be locked in jail awaiting charges for up to 45 days for misdemeanors, 60 days for felonies and 120 days for capitol offenses. House Bill 46 shortens that period to 5 days for most offenses and 30 days for more serious charges.
Supporters of the measure say that holding a presumptively innocent person in jail for an extended period of time can have a devastating impact on their life and cause them to lose their job, their home or custody of their children.
"A lot of people never have charges filed at all and they end up being released after weeks of unnecessary jail time," said HB46 sponsor, Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. "We know that extended jail stays only make it harder for people to get back on their feet."
Opponents say the timelines proposed would put too much of a burden on prosecutors and could force charging decisions to be made with incomplete evidence. Some lawmakers argued it would cause prosecutors to charge more people with crimes.
"As a district attorney did, in fact, tell me this morning, 'It's simple. If you put this burden on me, I'm charging everybody'," said state Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Praireville. "I do agree that some of these timelines could be tightened up and that injustice can occur if we don't ... but I'm just afraid the fix is going to create more problems."
James said the system currently asks innocent people to suffer because taxpayer-funded prosecutors don't want to do their jobs faster. He called the aforementioned DA's comments "the most troubling thing" he'd heard that day.
But Loren Lampert, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, countered that it's "not a DA problem." He said that, top to bottom, the criminal justice system is understaffed and underfunded, and it's unreasonable to expect crime labs and law enforcement to produce evidence within the proposed timelines.
"We could make it 5 days or we could make it 500 days. It's not going to solve the problems that you want to solve," Lampert said. "We're really putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole."
"It's just impractical to do it in such a quick time frame," said Bo Duhe, the District Attorney for the 16th Judicial District covering Iberia, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. "The reality is this is a staffing and funding issue."
Duhe said that roughly 40% of those arrested in Louisiana charged with a crime.
Bacala asked Lampert if a compromise could be made on the timelines that would satisfy the state's district attorneys. Lampert said it'd be disingenuous to give a number in that moment, arguing that shaving off a few days here or there still wouldn't "address the underlying issues of this bill."
Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, said its fundamentally wrong to keep innocent people in jail simply because the state hasn't allocated enough money to the criminal justice system. He said that tightening the deadlines will push the Legislature toward having conversations about what an adequate level of funding looks like.
"The truth is: the state has the money. We spend it on other things, but we don't give it to you." Nelson said. "We can't keep putting this on the backs of innocent people."
The deadlines imposed by the bill are likely to change before going to the House floor for a vote.
"We know that 45 days is too long and 5 days is too short. We need to come up with a compromise where everybody's happy," said Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, Jr., R-Hammond.
The bill passed out of committee by a 5-4 margin. It received support from Nelson; Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia; Rep. Frederick Jones, D-Monroe; and Rep Joseph Marino, I-Gretna.
Those who voted against the bill included Bacala; Rep. Jonathan Goudeau, R-Lafayette; Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux; Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner.