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Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Stephen Goldsmith presents the Justice Facility Sizing study Thursday in the Metro Council chambers.

To use Gov. John Bel Edwards’ apt word, the “diabolical” assassination of law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge is being met with the caring and kindness characteristic of our town and our state, as people are donating blood and providing love and support for officers.

That is today: The deaths of three fine officers and the wounding of three others demand our care and concern, for a long time to come.

What must be pondered in the weeks and months ahead is how to improve police protection in a parish with deeply troubled race relations and neighborhoods desperately needing policing that rolls back disorder and the drug trade.

Counter-intuitively, the way forward might be to keep more people out of jail.

Days before the police shooting of Alton Sterling, a new report about East Baton Rouge Parish Prison’s chronic problems of overcrowding and higher costs pointed toward a larger agenda of criminal justice reform.

The 33-page report was prepared by a highly respected former mayor of Indianapolis, Stephen Goldsmith.

He said that the city-parish government can be tough on crime but also cut crowding at the jail. The agenda includes not only alternatives to imprisonment but rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment.

The report was commissioned by the city-parish government but it follows upon efforts by leaders to deal with the growing crisis of mental illness. The efforts, spearheaded by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, are not new but action has been slow: Mayor-President Kip Holden joined with Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and others in early 2015 to ask for multiple taxes that would have funded a new prison and a mental health facility. Metro Council members complained the details were not fine-tuned, and they blocked putting the taxes on the ballot and asked for more information.

Things have only gotten worse since. How much information do elected officials need before they face up to the costs of change?

Unfortunately, as Jan Kasofsky, of the Capital Area Human Services District, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, the area has been hard-hit by a “massive deinstitutionalization” of the mentally ill.

She noted that leaders across the country want to avoid incarceration of offenders when possible, because they become stuck in the system, unable to either get help for their problems or work to provide for their families, often subsequently penalized for other infractions — the “Hotel California” effect.

For police officers, some of whom are on a first-name basis with repeat offenders, these people are a massive drain of time and trouble. Despite the training that Kasofsky’s agency has provided, there is little to be done with the offender except jail or perhaps a hospital emergency room, where officers might be detained for hours.

As Holden looks at the Baton Rouge Police Department, he sees a highly credentialed agency that he has fought to provide with resources over the last dozen years. But Holden’s backing of the mental health project also recognizes that the agency faces huge difficulties with not only crime but punishment — how to deal with the burden of people who are causing trouble and need help that cops cannot provide. That is far cheaper, by the way, than a new jail.

Relieving cops of these burdens ought to be a top priority for the new leadership that comes to city hall next January.