More judges, same backlog

Courts can’t keep up with growing crime

By Johnny Gunter • jgunter@thenewsstar.com • August 2, 2009

The addition of two district judges have not reduced the number of pre-trial detainees in the Ouachita Parish correctional system.

Chief 4th Judicial District Judge Sharon Marchman said when judges Robert Johnson and Danny Ellender joined the nine other judges of the district in January, they began using six judges for criminal proceedings in hopes it would help in the pretrial detainee problem.

Judges of the 4th District of Morehouse and Ouachita parishes are planning changes in their schedules beginning in January.

This year the 11 elected judges are operating five felony sections along with one judge who hears misdemeanor cases along with arraignments — both felony and misdemeanor — and 72-hour hearings. Four of the other judges work civil cases, and Marchman handles all juvenile cases, juvenile and adult drug courts, and adoptions.

Beginning in January, the schedule will have five judges hearing criminal cases and five working civil, with Marchman continuing to handle her current workload.

Marchman said that was the plan from the beginning: five and five. Judge Carl Sharp will be assigned to Courtroom No. 2 to handle the misdemeanors, arraignments and 72-hour hearings, leaving only four criminal sections.

Marchman said having the five felony sections has not been able to cut into the number of pretrial detainees at Ouachita Correctional Center. “We don’t think at this point we can slow it down. We’ve got the two new judges, and we’ve not been able to do it,” she said.

Housing pretrial detainees is costly to parish taxpayers. The detainees take up space that could be used to house state prisoners. The parish gets $24.39 per day per state prisoner, but the entire cost of housing pretrial detainees fall on the shoulders of parish taxpayers.

District Attorney Jerry Jones shares Marchman’s frustration, having dealt with the pretrial detainee situation since taking office in the early 1990s. “In January of 1993 we had 162 pretrial detainees, and I told my chief prosecutor at the time I wanted those cases moved out. He said it couldn’t be done, and I told him I didn’t want any excuses. By the end of February we had moved 102 cases and ended up adding two more to the 162 we started with,” Jones said.
**

At the end of last week, Assistant District Attorney Mike Ruddick, who keeps up with the numbers, said pretrial detainees numbered 541. Of that number, only 51 inmates had been there for 11 months or more. Of that number, 36 are awaiting trials while the remainder have been found incompetent to proceed and are awaiting open beds at East Feliciana Forensic facility at Jackson.

“We’re moving 90 percent of all our cases within ll months, and that’s way above the national standard,” Jones said.

The district attorney said cutting back to four criminal sections might actually help because it would allow him to put his most experienced lawyers in those four sections. Each section will have four attorneys.

Jones believes the pretrial detainee problem started escalating in January 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement opened U.S. borders to Mexico and its drug cartels. Before then, there were about 40,000 large trucks crossing the border into the U.S. at Laredo, Texas, but now there are more than a million. “You can’t even wave at that many trucks much less search them,” Jones said.

He said there are two major routes to Atlanta, where illegal drugs are distributed throughout the country, “and those are Interstate 10 and 20, which pass through Louisiana.”

Jones said local law enforcement agencies have concentrated on illegal drugs passing through the area and have been successful in making many arrests. The Internet also has opened up the drug trade. He said any prescription drug can be ordered over the Internet, and it’s delivered in plain brown wrappers. “There’s not enough manpower to stop this kind of activity and falls on the shoulders of the federal government,” Jones said.

Marchman believes cases could possibly be speeded up by taking advantage of modern technology, which can get information to judges much faster. She said much of the court’s work is still handwritten before being transferred into the computer system.

She said all agencies involved in getting inmates through the courts need to be linked into a system for better communication.

Marchman said the judges can’t just focus on pretrial detainees because there is a tremendous volume of civil cases that requires attention. She said the court has three hearing officers who specialize in family law who have been hired to hear child custody and support cases, and ad hoc Judge James Boddie hears all asbestos and paper mill cases, which consumes a lot of time.

The two new judges had to be approved by the Supreme Court and Judicial Council. In the case of the new judges, the Legislature also had to approve it.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, who served as a 4th District and 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal judge, said reducing pretrial detainees is a problem throughout the state. “There just so much crime, you’ll never reduce it without changing the law,” he said.

The law of giving time for credit served to inmates starting at the time of arrest gives them no incentive to accept a plea bargain or go to trial, Kostelka said. He said if that law was changed to an inmate’s time not starting until conviction, it would serve as a incentive to make a plea.

Kostelka said the current law would be very difficult to change.

Differences surface over Criminal Court

by Michael DeVault – posted Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

Judge Sharon Marchman says 4th Judicial District Court will reduce the number of judges assigned to hear criminal cases from six jurists to five.

That decision does not sit well with some officials involved with the criminal justice system.

“When we got approval for our two new judges to come on the bench, we agreed that we were willing to commit both of those judges for one year to address the criminal backlogs, and we have,” said Marchman, chief judge at 4th Judicial District Court.

“The criminal pre-trial detainees are way down now,” Marchman said.

Marchman’s comment about the new judgeships at 4th Judicial District Court was in reference to the Legislature’s decision last year to create additional judgeships for Ouachita and Morehouse parishes. Ouachita and Morehouse were granted the new judicial posts to help alleviate a backlog of cases in the 4th Judicial District Court, including criminal cases.

One Ouachita Correctional Center (OCC) official disagreed with Marchman’s assessment that pre-trial detainees housed at OCC were “way down.”

OCC Warden Brian Newcomer said the number of pre-trial detainees was “very high.”

OCC currently houses 582 pre-trial detainees, or inmates awaiting trial on criminal charges. On June 23, 2008, OCC housed 618 pre-trial inmates.

Newcomer said that was not a significant decline.

“To me, having 30 less over a 12-month period, that’s not significant,” Newcomer said.

Newcomer said the lower number of detainees could be just as easily attributed to a general decline in the prison’s population.

While OCC currently houses 969 inmates, this time last year there were just over 1,000 inmates at the parish prison, according to Newcomer.

That means the proportion of pre-trial detainees to the general inmate population remains steady, Newcomer said.

“To me, to have significantly less pre-trialers, you’re talking having 75 or a 100 less pre-trialers,” Newcomer said. “This is just 30 or so.”

Ouachita Parish police juror Walt Caldwell also questioned Marchman’s assertion that the two new judges approved by the Legislature last year were only temporarily assigned to hear criminal matters at 4th Judicial District Court.

When asked to elaborate, Caldwell said, “It may be a misunderstanding on my part, but I thought it was to be in perpetuity until the pre-trial detainee problem was solved.”

“That problem hasn’t been solved,” said Caldwell, an attorney who often handles criminal cases at district court.

Caldwell served as president of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury until earlier this year. He presided over the police jury as OCC began to encounter budgetary problems in light of the high number of pre-trial detainees it houses. OCC faces a more than $1 million deficit heading into the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, because of costs associated with overcrowding and housing a high number of pre-trial detainees.

For months, Caldwell said he and his peers at the police jury have frequently noted the biggest problem facing OCC was the high number of pre-trial detainees versus the number of Department of Corrections prisoners the parish prison keeps.

Expenses associated with housing DOC inmates are paid by the state.

Expenses related to housing inmates awaiting trial, however, fall to the police jury and, ultimately, the taxpayers of Ouachita Parish.

Caldwell said reducing the number of judges hearing criminal cases at 4th Judicial District Court could lead to more budget problems at OCC.

“I’m concerned about the judges’ consideration of reducing the number of sections of criminal court because we still have very high numbers of pre-trial detainees, more than the current millage can really handle,” Caldwell said.

Jones updates office to expedite cases
Jones updates office to expedite cases

by Scott Rogers – posted Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

The 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office should have a new case management system in place by the end of the year to help move pre-trial detainees at the parish prison through the judicial system at a quicker clip.

That’s according to Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jerry Jones, who spoke with The Ouachita Citizen Wednesday.

“We will have a case management system by the end of this year,” Jones said. “We have a case management system today, but it was designed in 1985, so it’s way past being outdated. We are updating, upgrading and getting a system that will handle the volume of cases we handle today.”

“This is an essential part in moving cases in a more rapid fashion,” Jones continued. “We are entering the 21st century as far as case management is concerned.”

Communication among law enforcement agencies is the key in the criminal justice system, and simply being able to communicate electronically could save days. Typically, it could take three days to send one piece of paper communication to an agency or an attorney down the street, Jones said.

“We are a paper-driven criminal justice system and that’s so archaic, and we’re changing that,” he said. “We’re doing a lot to try and move pre-trial detainees.”

Jones said the majority of people incarcerated today at Ouachita Correctional Center are not non-violent first offenders. They are there for their second, third or fourth time, and many of them are violent offenders.

“Or they are your habitual burglar or your habitual drug dealer,” Jones explained. “You certainly don’t want to see these kinds of people out on the street. If you look at our population at OCC, you will not see many pre-trial detainees who are first-time offenders, and I don’t think you will see any pre-trial detainee who is a first offender who is a non-violent first offender.”

Regarding habitual offenders, Jones said the recidivism rate is high in the state and nation and much higher than most people imagine.

“Recidivism is very high and that’s because we warehouse people,” Jones said.

As long as the criminal justice system warehouses people and does little to educate prisoners and help them change their lives, they will continue to return to prison, Jones said.

“If you make them do time and let them out, what do you expect to get out?” Jones said. “You get the same thing out as you put in.”

“We’ve got to teach them, educate them and treat them for drug abuse,” he said. “We have them captive, so they’re not going anywhere.”

There are many options available to change the criminal justice system for the better, according to Jones. Those changes will have to be implemented because the state and the nation as a whole cannot continue to house large numbers of inmates year after year.

“We are using our jails in the state of Louisiana to treat drug problems, handle our mentally ill and do many things that the criminal justice system was not designed to handle,” Jones continued. “We need to spend more money on the front end, treating kids for drug abuse, educating children against drug abuse or at least teaching them what will happen if they use drugs.

“We need to invest in the child before the child reaches the criminal justice system. If we do that, then we are going to cut the cost of incarceration tremendously. One day we will do that, and the reason we will do it one day is because we will have to do it.”

Working with children early on to prevent them from entering the criminal justice system will save money in the long run, Jones said.

More importantly, according to Jones, “It’s the right thing to do.”

“A lot of these bright-eyed kids who make mistakes and get involved in drugs are just that – bright-eyed kids who made mistakes,” Jones added.

Jones taught for six years at Bastrop Junior High School. He says he knows what teenagers are capable of doing if helped along the right path.

“I know how bright-eyed they are, how eager they are to learn, and I also know how quickly we lose them,” Jones said. “It’s at that age we must invest our time and effort, not after they commit a crime.”

He said today, more than ever, children are exposed to drugs, alcohol, violence and sex.

“It’s all on TV at home, and it’s everywhere you look, really,” Jones said. “That’s why we need to be ever vigilant in steering our kids away from that lifestyle. Until we do that, we will continue to have 40,000 people in prison on a state-wide basis, and more than two million nationally.”

When Jones was elected District Attorney in 1991, there were 19,000 people imprisoned in Louisiana and 300,000 incarcerated nationally.