Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Jail Crowding a Key Concern For Everyone in the Justice System

There is no bigger issue facing the local criminal justice system than the aging and overcrowded Lafayette Parish Correctional Center, where a growing inmate population, more than half of whom are awaiting trial, languish within walls that are not set to expand anytime soon.

The same scenario is playing out in jails across the state, which leads the world with a per capital inmate population of 791 per 100,000 people.

On Dec. 1, the jail implemented its most controversial population management policy yet by releasing misdemeanor offenders on a court summons in lieu of bonds. It has been met by criticism from bondsmen and city court officials who are predicting increases in crime and surges in warrants for failure to appear in court. It is too early to tell if these fears are warranted.
LPCC Director Rob Reardon hopes the policy will reduce the inmate population by 75 to 100. This policy follows other pushes by the jail to free up space and lower the jail's $12 million a year operating cost. Those have included expansion or creation of numerous rehabilitative programs such as work release, day reporting and home detention.

But what none of these policies can do is limit the number of inmates who are awaiting trial.

The jail's capacity rate stands at 914. At any given time, about 550 inmates there are awaiting trials. This is bad news for a jail in need of space, especially when those inmates likely will remain there for long periods of time.

As of Dec. 27, the jail's inmate roster included 37 prisoners who had had been in jail for more than a year without a trial, eight who had been in for more than two years and six who had been there for more than three years. It also included about 230 others who had been in for more than 100 days but less than a year.

Some were because of the mental health of the prisoners or because the case involved a murder trial, which typically takes longer than any other trial. The others are because of packed dockets, court delays and continuances from both the state and defense.

Each of those cases involves individuals who could either not afford a bond or were not offered a bond because of the nature of their charges. So, while they are still innocent, their freedom is put on hold while they await their court dates.

District Attorney Mike Harson said it's not uncommon for a case to take nine months to move its way through the system.

Cases routinely get bumped off a docket based on their priority, which is because of the Simpson Decision, a case that Harson prosecuted back in the late 1980s.

Prior to this decision, prosecutors could pick what cases they wanted to pursue and put them on a docket. Defense attorneys argued that it was unfair.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that cases must be randomly set and that the district attorney's office had to prioritize which cases it was most interested in pursuing off any given docket. That list had to be sent to defense attorneys beforehand. This allowed them to know what cases they should be most prepared for. It also lets them know which cases do not stand a reasonable chance of going to trial.

Harson said he is allowed only 225 days of court each year, but when you take in thousands of cases each year there's no way to get through all of them in time. The hope is that those lesser cases will ultimately end in a pleas.

"People complain about plea bargains, but if we don't have them, this whole system comes to a halt," he said.

District Judge Marilyn Castle has said she realizes that there are flaws within the system.

"The reason our system isn't perfect is because it's made up by humans, and we're not perfect," District Judge Marilyn Castle said.

But she said she thinks the system moves pretty fast compared to others.

"Would I like to see the system to move faster? Of course I would," she said.

One way is to speed up misdemeanor cases, Reardon said. This would alleviate the reasons behind the jail's new policy, which still accepts domestic violence related misdemeanors and warrants.

Misdemeanor offenders usually account for upward of 60 percent of the jail's occupancy rate. Before this policy went into effect, a person arrested for a minor disturbance, such as a fight in a bar, could sit in jail for up to 45 days waiting for charges to be filed. It can be 60 days for a felony offense.

If no charges are filed, the person can be released. If charges are filed, then the person can sit and wait even longer. When this happens, a person theoretically can spend more time waiting in jail than he would have received for his sentence. This ultimately leads to a lot of credit for time served sentences.

Reardon has long pointed to places like Minnesota, which is where he came from, and its ability to clear the majority of its misdemeanor offenses within 24 hours of an arrest.

If he had a wish list, he said this would top it.

Various local officials have voiced their willingness to examine implementing such a procedure here.

But to do it would require serious systemic changes, from shortening how long it takes police reports to be processed and charges to be filed to the willingness of judges to sit in and take pleas a lot sooner than the normal time frames allot.

Chief Judge Glennon Everett called it a good idea and one that he would definitely consider. He said he realizes the need to speed up the system.

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