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Relieve crowding at Parish Prison

Date: December 2, 2004 Section: NEWS

Long-term solutions are needed for chronic crowding at Parish Prison, which sometimes must turn away or release people for lack of space.

The point man on this problem ought to be Sheriff Elmer Litchtield, whose office operates the Parish Prison.

!n April 2000, the Sheriffs Office pushed three tax proposals to expand the prison's capacity. The voters, in a low-turnout election, rejected all three tax proposals.

Now two sheriffs officials are saying prison expansion isn't necessary, after all. Instead, they're saying, in effect, the answer is for the 19th Judicial District courts to increase turnover of the prison's clientele.

The prison has a capacity of almost 1,600 people. On Nov. 21, The Advocate reported that more than 95 percent of the Parish Prison inmates are awaiting trial.

Some prisoners are held in Parish Prison because they can't make bond or are ineligible for release on bond pending court proceedings. Prisoners aren't moved from Parish Prison to state prisons unless they are convicted and sentenced.

Leu Anne Greco, legal adviser to the Sheriffs Office, said "the bottom-line problem" is that cases aren't moving through District Court as fast as they once did. Sheriffs Office Lt. Col. Greg Phares said he agrees.

Through October, 977 parish prisoners were moved along to state prisons, compared with 1,213 prisoners at the same point in 2003 and 1,283 in 2002, Greco said, noting that she couldn't explain the decrease in the number of inmates departing Parish Prison for stale prisons.

Phares said recently that he had met separately with District Attorney Doug Moreau and District Judge Todd Hernandez, chairman of the 19th Judicial District's Criminal Judges Committee, to seek solutions to the crowding problem. Phares said the meetings were encouraging, but he wouldn't reveal details.

District Judge Bonnie Jackson and lawyer Thomas D'Amico have their own ideas about the problem.

Jackson said the situation is complex.

"You can't look at one component of an entire system and say, That's where the problem lies.1 Courts don't act independently from police agencies or the District Attorney's Office," Jackson said.

D'Amico said he doesn't think cases are going through the courts too slowly. Me argues that more people are moving through the system.

"They're handling as many cases as they ever have," he said.

Though some people criticize the work ethic of judges, lawyers and prosecutors, "I just don't believe that's the problem," D'Amico said.

Litchfield, 77, announced in October that he will not run for re­election in 2007. Since he doesn't plan to run again, Litchfield has nothing to lose by again tackling this issue - which really is his job.

Litchfield should make correction of the facility's crowded conditions a priority.

The sheriff is in a position to reach out to Mayor-President-elect Melvin "Kip" Holden and suggest a special task force to examine the Parish Prison situation and develop a plan to address it.

Such a task force should consider, among other things, whether factors other than the number of cells contribute to crowded conditions at Parish Prison. One important question to ask and answer is whether the courts are handling their business as quickly as they could and whether that affects the situation.

The necessity of dealing with crowding at the prison was underscored by revelations Nov. 14 in The Advocate that some people suspected of violent crimes have not been locked up because of crowding at the Parish Prison, despite past assurances that would not happen.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriffs Office and the Baton Rouge Police Department looked into how it happened that some people suspected of violent felonies were not booked into the prison, but officials of both agencies refused to disclose their findings, apparently because each blames the other.

"The conclusions reached were different as to who's culpable," Phares said. "We're not going to get into a head-butting contest about that."

That gentlemen's agreement leaves the public in the dark, apparently with little alternative but to blame both law enforcement agencies.

Phares and interim Baton Rouge Police Chief David Whatley said their respective offices had taken steps to prevent recurrences.

Phares conceded that he could not guarantee this will not happen again, "but we have very markedly reduced the possibility."

Those measures taken by the Sheriffs Office and the Police Department were just the latest attempts to cope with the situation without correcting the root problem, a chronic lack of space at the prison - for whatever reason - that makes it necessary to release some people who otherwise would be locked up.

It's past time to correct this problem.

Copyright 2004 Capital City Press, Baton Rouge, La:

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