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Louisiana City Declines to Open Jail Funded by Offender Fees

Officials in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, apparently acquiescing to community opposition to profit-based and racially discriminatory policing, have scrapped plans to build a jail for misdemeanor offenders. The jail was to be financed solely through bench warrant fees levied on those charged with low-level offenses.

In October 2015, members of the East Baton Rouge Parish (EBRP) Metro Council voted against opening the proposed jail.

“We incarcerate more people than Cuba, Iran and North Korea combined, and our solution here is to put people in jail for misdemeanors, essentially traffic offenses,” Councilman John Delgado said during the meeting. “This is obscene.”

For several years, EBRP officials had planned to open a jail to hold misdemeanor offenders and fund it with bench warrant assessment fees paid by arrestees. The facility would have been open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would have held low-level criminals such as traffic law violators.

According to Louisiana 19th Judicial District First Assistant District Attorney Mark Dumaine, it would have cost about $100,000 to keep the misdemeanor jail open for a two-week period and about $2.2 million annually for around-the-clock operations. The plan had been to open the jail for two weeks during five separate periods each year.

Two-week test runs in July and August 2011, using an existing facility located below the city courthouse, resulted in more than 5,110 warrants being cleared and over $191,000 in revenue, presumably from warrant fees and fines.

A 2013 study by two Louisiana State University sociology professors found that during three trial runs of opening the jail for misdemeanor offenders, violent and property crimes decreased by about 20 percent while the jail was open and there was a month-long reduction in crime associated with each period of operation.

Funding for long-term operation of the jail was expected to come from bench warrant assessment fees tacked on to other fees (such as traffic fines) issued by the courts. Under Act 308 of the 2014 legislature, courts could collect fees to fund misdemeanor jails. That legislation, however, was subsequently repealed by state lawmakers – though HB 258, which was signed into law and went into effect on August 1, 2015, allows warrant recall fees of up to $50 in the 27th Judicial District Court.

During the time when bench warrant fees were assessed, the EBRP City Court charged a $25 fee and the East Baton Rouge District Court charged a $50 fee. Between those two courts, there were around 165,000 outstanding warrants; some offenders had up to 20 warrants. City officials had anticipated additional revenue in the amount of roughly $4.2 million – in bench warrant assessments, fines and other fees – if those people could be found and prosecuted.

However, as reported by Channel 9 WAFB in October 2016, roughly 60 percent of all misdemeanor bench warrants issued by the two courts were for traffic violations. Critics of the jail plan argued there was no reason to be incarcerating such offenders in the first place, let alone opening a full-time jail to house them. Even without building a new jail, city officials already had a practice of detaining violent misdemeanor offenders in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

During the October 2015 EBRP Metro Council meeting, some community residents, joined by advocacy organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued that profit-based policing places the weight of the justice system disproportionately on the backs of the disadvantaged – namely minority groups and the poor. That was the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, which contributed to widespread protests after the shooting of Michael Brown. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.54].

Following the rejection of the proposed misdemeanor jail and reversal of the state legislation that authorized bench warrant fees, EBRP courts decided to rescind the fees and issue refunds to the defendants who had paid them. Most defendants were not informed they were entitled to refunds, however, which required them to file a detailed claims form.

In October 2016, a full year following the demise of the jail plan, more than $1 million in unclaimed warrant fee payments remained with the City of Baton Rouge’s Finance Department. City officials said the leftover funds would be distributed between the courts, the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s office.


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