St. Tammany Parish is still a place where people arrested on felony charges are likely to be convicted, but crime watchdogs say the parish needs to do more to speed cases through the system.
The felony conviction rates in St. Tammany exceed the national average for every category of offenses, according to a Metropolitan Crime Commission report released Wednesday.
The report compares the criminal justice system's performance before and after changes in leadership in 2015 and 2016 at the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's Office and the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office.
Overall, 63 percent of felony arrests in the parish ended in convictions in 2016, with an additional 23 percent resulting in misdemeanor convictions. The combined conviction rate rose from 83 percent to 86 percent from 2014 to 2016. However, the rate of felony convictions for felony arrests declined from 68 percent to 63 percent.
St. Tammany Parish has seen changes at the top of its criminal justice system in recent years, with 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery and Sheriff Randy Smith replacing their longtime predecessors in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
While longtime District Attorney Walter Reed had reveled in the parish's nickname of "St. Slammany," earned by a determined effort to push for long sentences for nearly all offenses, the report notes a decrease in felony drug arrests over the past several years, due in part to efforts to improve the delivery of mental health and drug treatment services.
The report, which both Smith and Montgomery said they welcomed, was critical of the amount of time that elapses from arrest to the prosecution's decision on whether to pursue charges against felony suspects.
The median number of days from arrest to a decision on pursuing charges was 57 days in 2017. That was down from 69 days in 2016, but still higher than the 48 days in 2014.
There is a 60-day statutory limit on how long a felony suspect can be held without charges, except in cases where the death penalty or life imprisonment is involved.
According to the report, at least 33 percent of those arrested for felonies in St. Tammany in 2016 and 2107 remained in custody through the time it took for a charging decision to be reached.
"Prolonged time for screening decisions also has negative impacts on victims, witnesses and the accused whose lives are disrupted as they await resolution of pending criminal charges," the report said. Such delay also increases the cost to taxpayers, the report said. It urged police and prosecutors to work to reduce the time needed to make decisions.
Smith, who took office in July 2016, said his agency has made some changes this year to its processes and how it provides information to the district attorney. It now takes an average of 27 days for the Sheriff's Office to submit cases to the district attorney, he said.
"It takes all of us on the same page working together," Smith said, adding that coordination didn't always happen under previous administrations.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the report couldn't determine whether delays are due primarily to the time it takes for police agencies to get information to prosecutors or the time the District Attorney's Office takes to make decisions.
But backups at the parish crime lab are a contributing factor as the emphasis on forensic evidence grows, Goyeneche said, a point that he also emphasized in presenting the report Wednesday to a roomful of St. Tammany business, government and law enforcement leaders.
"This 57 days (to reach a decision in 2017) could be cut below 2014 levels with cooperation and coordination," he said. He called for weekly charging conferences, which also would develop relationships and trust between agencies and help police and prosecutors see emerging crime trends, he said.
Montgomery said the Reed administration "had an almost universal acceptance" of arrest charges and did little to review cases beyond looking at police reports.
"The consequence of that was that people would be charged even if there was insufficient evidence to convict," he said.
More thorough screening means a higher degree of certainty that those charged will be found guilty, he said. He also said the average age of felony cases has gone down 14 percent from 2014 to 2017. "That indicates that the time frame ... from arrest to resolution has diminished."
The report is one of a series of annual examinations of the criminal justice system commissioned by the Northshore Business Council, an organization of business CEOs that seeks to improve business and economic conditions in St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes.
The next report, on the judiciary, will come out next month, Goyeneche said.
Scott Delacroix, a Northshore Business Council board member, praised law enforcement agencies for their cooperation in gathering the data and said the report will serve as a recruitment tool in luring businesses, showing that the community is a safe one and that the parish "has its act together."