Justice, not denied – a small Foundation experiment leads to big changes in incarceration fairness

Justice, not denied – a small Foundation experiment leads to big changes in incarceration fairness


By Sara Bongiorni
In Baton Rouge, experienced leaders within our justice system have come to terms with a reality: We can’t jail our way to safety. Their own data showed the imprisonment rate was more than double that of like jurisdictions. They knew that too many residents were incarcerated because they couldn’t afford bail, or the system took too many days to decide whether they should even be charged.

The awareness has led to a remarkable thing, barely noticed by all but the insiders who have quietly made it so. Collectively, justice leaders have shifted how they work; the incarceration rate safely plunged 47% over two-and-a-half years to a 20-year low in July.

The long-term benefits of half as many people in jail are many. People who don’t belong in jail can return to their jobs and be supported by their families. An early internal calculation shows parish government will save at least $2 million each year, with savings available for more reforms.

From across the justice system, leaders are producing a remarkable result—the East Baton Rouge jail population has dropped by nearly half. Among so many working together on justice reforms are, from left, City Court Judge Yvette Alexander, EBR Publi…
From across the justice system, leaders are producing a remarkable result—the East Baton Rouge jail population has dropped by nearly half. Among so many working together on justice reforms are, from left, City Court Judge Yvette Alexander, EBR Public Defender Michael Mitchell, staff members Lacie Dauzat and Lindsay Blouin, and East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III.

The source of the big change is a small experiment that was started by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation—The David O’Quin Pre-Trial Diversion and Recovery Program. With startup money from a $50,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant, diversion proved so successful that the city-parish now fully funds the program.

The premise of the three-year-old program is simple: divert nonviolent pre-trial detainees with behavioral health challenges to treatment instead of jail. Give them a six- to nine-month regimen that requires meaningful work and therapies for mental illness or addictions, or both. To date, 32 of the 37 program graduates have pulled their lives together and stayed out of trouble.

In turn, the graduates have given hope to thousands of others. Their steady success has sparked justice reform in Baton Rouge, providing solid data that rehabilitation is an effective, less expensive and safe alternative to jail for people picked up on charges like drug possession.

“The diversion project showed that with the right resources, people can succeed and return to their families and their communities,” said Chief Public Defender Michael Mitchell, who has led the department for more than two decades.

The diversion program put Mitchell in the same room with leaders of local justice agencies and organizations—the district attorney’s office, the sheriff and police departments, the courts.

“It brought all the partners together for conversations where everybody had a chance to share their concerns,” said Jermaine Guillory, chief of administration for the district attorney’s office.

Together, the leaders started to wonder what else was possible. “Stakeholders started to reimagine the justice system,” Guillory said. “What we found was a good amount of consensus.”

They needed a way to sustain the reforms. So they agreed to partner with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to form a nonprofit that represented all of them—the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Operating with additional grants from the MacArthur Foundation and continued funding from the city-parish, the CJCC gathers stakeholders and community members to address overreliance on the parish prison and racial disparities within it.

Like the pre-trial program itself, collaboration drives the CJCC. It has built a foundation of trust and a willingness to listen that encourage discussions for systemic shifts to the justice system.

“The CJCC has had a revolutionary effect on conversations about criminal justice,” Guillory said.

Credit once more that pre-trial diversion program, which made the case for sending fewer people to prison in the first place. “That’s what got us where we are,” said Lauren Crapanzano Jumonville, director of civic leadership initiatives for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.

Jermaine Guillory, EBR District Attorney chief of administration
Jermaine Guillory, EBR District Attorney chief of administration

The CJCC’s early work includes facilitating case processing and early release reforms that pre-date the pandemic. Those initiatives focus on pre-trial justice with good reason. About 97% of inmates in the East Baton Rouge Parish jail have not gone to trial, according to an analysis by JFA Institute. Typically, about 20% of the population has serious mental illness as well.

Most inmates are poor, and a disproportionate number are African American. Many are there because they can’t afford the bail that would get them out of prison while their cases move along.

“It’s devastating for the poor,” Mitchell said. “For many people, it doesn’t matter whether bail is $200 or $100,000 because either way they can’t afford it.”

Advancing cases more efficiently is critically important because even a short stay in jail increases the likelihood that a detainee will re-offend, perhaps losing a job and benefits, research shows.

Bringing cases to justice quickly was a rallying cause for District Attorney Hillar Moore III. He found many allies. And changes to procedures reduced the time between an arrest and charges from 60 to 90 days to about six days for most cases. “That’s a huge improvement,” said Chris Csonka, CJCC executive director.

Agencies were willing to make significant adjustments to a complex process. The back-and-forth among justice agencies led to the discovery and elimination of lags caused by data sources, reporting deadlines and other factors. The timeline for certain police paperwork was squeezed down from two weeks to a day, Csonka says, citing an example.

“Expedited arraignment could not happen without police support,” Csonka says.

As well, 19th Judicial District Court and City Court judges changed their schedules and coordinated with other justice agencies to make the new processes work.

Central to the success were East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Grimes, the jail warden. They were instrumental in the complex logistics of moving prisoners between facilities, making sure they were available for arraignments under a system that was moving faster.

The streamlined process produced the initial notable reduction in the prison population. In just six months, incarceration fell 15%, from 1,819 in September 2019 when the arraignment process began to 1,545 in February 2020. Further drops were the result of the pandemic, when justice officials—now collaborating—decided to stop putting people in jail for misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

Lauren Crapanzano Jumonville, Baton Rouge Area Foundation director of civic leadership initiatives, leads our justice reform program, which collaborated with justice department officials to form the EBR Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to enact…
Lauren Crapanzano Jumonville, Baton Rouge Area Foundation director of civic leadership initiatives, leads our justice reform program, which collaborated with justice department officials to form the EBR Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to enact reforms. Chris Csonka is the founding executive director of CJCC.

Again, Sheriff Gautreaux was key. He stopped accepting detainees accused of nonviolent transgressions, like drug possession, a decision that helped contain the virus in a smaller and smaller prison population.

The overall effort built on work by the public defender to more quickly resolve cases involving low-level arrests. As of last year, public defenders contacted defendants within 24 hours of arrest, compared to 45 days before. Even a brief conversation between defendant and attorney can produce information that is critical in determining how much time a defendant spends in jail.

If substance abuse or mental illness is a factor in an arrest, for instance, an assistant public defender might argue for treatment instead of jail during the first appearance before a judge, Mitchell said.

Assistant public defenders are now present for those first appearances before a judge, another 2019 change. “It’s a chance to advocate earlier and more effectively,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s office also developed a process during the pandemic to identify low-risk inmates eligible for immediate release without bail or other conditions.

The work began with a weekend undertaking in early March. Mitchell’s staff first requested the names of the roughly 1,500 inmates in prison. Next, the team pulled case records for each inmate and pored through files to identify which inmates appeared eligible for immediate release from the prison, where crowded conditions posed a high risk of novel coronavirus transmission.

The team compiled a list of names for the district attorney’s office to review. An agreed-upon list of names went next to a judge for a decision on release.

The process prompted the release of as many as 100 inmates in a week early in the pandemic. It also created a new opportunity for district attorneys and public defenders to work together. Daily meetings to review new arrests have emerged as an ongoing practice since spring.

Meanwhile, the CJCC is providing funding for additional staffing to the public defender, city prosecutor and district attorney’s office to support early case resolution through Rapid Case Assessment Teams for both City and District courts. Each team gives prosecutors and public defenders a better shot at agreeing on a non-jail remedy in cases where that makes sense.

“The goal is to put people together earlier to start talking and resolving cases,” the CJCC’s Csonka said. “A judge will be more likely to agree to a remedy when both sides agree on what should happen.”

The CJCC is working to build additional reform momentum, including through a new collaboration with community groups. The nonprofit will develop initiatives focused on prisoner re-entry.

Justice leaders sense an opportunity for more progress. ADA Guillory said he has seen growing openness to discussions about ideas like restorative justice, where victims, offenders and other stakeholders work together to repair harm from criminal acts.

There is a growing willingness to consider questions like whether the traditional adversarial system of prosecutor-versus-public defender effectively protects public safety and promotes justice in cases as different as shoplifting and murder, he said.

“Is that what needs to be imposed in all cases? The answer is clearly no,” Guillory said.

“This is a matter of thinking differently.”

Police Chief Murphy Paul is also eager to discuss more effective criminal justice. He says he looks forward to meaningful conversations about community policing and the role of law enforcement in responding to crimes tied to substance abuse and mental illness.

“Let’s re-imagine our response,” Paul said.

He shared data with Currents on arrests in the city of Baton Rouge to highlight his argument for a new way of doing things. Though the city arrested 32,000 more people in 2009-10 than in 2018-19, the city was not safer back then.

“We need to look at systemic issues, and people are listening like never before,” Paul said.

“There is a window of opportunity,” adds Mitchell. “This time things feel different.”

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