Legislator files bill that would fund Baton Rouge City Jail

A Baton Rouge legislator prefiled a bill Friday that would move the city-parish one step closer to getting a full-time misdemeanor jail.

House Bill 915 by state Rep. Alfred C. Williams, D-Baton Rouge, would create a funding stream to operate the Baton Rouge City Jail as a full-time misdemeanor jail.

The City Jail, which can hold up to 150 people, now is used as a temporary holding and processing center for about 20 people a day. It’s open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday

If the bill is approved, it would authorize the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, Baker City Court and Baton Rouge City and Family courts to levy a $50 warrant recall fee to people who fail to appear in court for misdemeanor and traffic violations, causing an arrest warrant to be issued.

When the person is arrested, the warrant is recalled, which is when the fee would be levied, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.

Moore said it would be up to the judges as to whether the fee is imposed.

The money would go into an account managed by various clerks of court and would be used for operating the jail, the bill says.

Attempts to reach Williams for comment on Monday were unsuccessful.

If the law passes, law enforcement would be able to jail misdemeanor offenders, instead of writing them a summons, and it also would allow for those offenders’ names, fingerprints, photos and misdemeanor offenses to be entered into the criminal system, Moore said.

Misdemeanor citations do not appear on a person’s criminal record so prosecutors, when working on a felony case, do not know how often a suspect has been issued a misdemeanor summons, Moore said. Booking them also means they go before a judge, at least for a bail hearing.

Misdemeanor offenders can be booked into Parish Prison, but there are space issues inside the prison that limit how many misdemeanor offenders are jailed, City Constable Reginald Brown said, so the misdemeanor jail would alleviate that concern.

The idea of a misdemeanor jail has been bandied about for a few years by city-parish officials and has supporters among top law enforcement officials in the area.

“We believe that it could really help us reduce crime and reduce the number of outstanding warrants we have,” Moore said, adding that the threat of incarceration, no matter how brief, would be enough to deter some people from committing the crimes.

Moore and Brown estimate that there are at least 100,000 outstanding traffic and misdemeanor warrants in the city-parish, and that number could be as high at 160,000.

“It’s a crowd that Tiger Stadium would like to have on every game,” Moore said.

Brown said it would take about two years of aggressively working warrants to get that number down to a manageable figure.

Many of those warrants were issued after people who were given misdemeanor citations never showed up for their court date.

“Nobody is afraid of a summons,” Brown said.

In 2011 and 2012, officials opened the doors to the City Jail for a trial run of housing misdemeanor offenders.

Over a three-week period in 2012, from the time the trial run was announced on June 11 to the end of the full-time operation of the jail on June 29, the city-parish collected about $184,000 from people resolving their outstanding warrants to avoid jail time.

“We had people lining up outside of the courthouse just to take care of bench warrants,” Moore said Monday.

The city-parish raised more than $191,000 in additional revenue in only two weeks in a similar operation in 2011.

Officials stopped using the City Jail as full-time lockup in 2001 due to lack of use.

Williams’ bill appears to be similar to a resolution passed by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council in October 2011. That resolution urged judges to impose a $50 fee on all people who failed to appear in court for misdemeanor and traffic violations, causing an arrest warrant to be issued.

Moore said district court judges were reluctant to impose the fee because they felt either a law needed to be in place for them to collect the fee or that the Louisiana Supreme Court needed to rule on the issue.

In August 2011, members of the Crime Fighting/Prevention Committee — created by the Metro Council — organized a wish list for capital projects, one of which was a misdemeanor jail that the committee estimated would cost about $2.2 million annually to run.

Moore and Brown estimated that to run the misdemeanor jail now, it would cost between $1 million to $1.5 million annually.