In a state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate, local prosecutors are exploring new programs to give some defendants opportunities to avoid jail or prison, while still ensuring that those who require prison time receive it.
District attorneys from Terrebonne, Lafourche and other jurisdictions along with some of their top staff members attended a weeklong conference in Pensacola last month where nationally recognized experts shared their ideas, and prosecutors focused on what has worked and what has not in their jurisdictions.
“We talked about a resurgence in diversion programs nationally,” said Kevin Guidry, operations administrator for Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. Guidry is president of Professionals In Pre-Trial Services, a national consortium of justice system administrators interested in developing and maintaining diversion programs. Guidry skippered this year’s conference, the 34th in the group’s history.
With 893 out of every 100,000 Louisiana residents in state or federal lock-ups, Louisiana holds the highest state incarceration rank per capita. Attempts for passage of de-criminalization measures in the state Legislature have met mixed responses. Some politicians’ fear being branded as “soft on crime.”
Data and the practices generating them discussed at the program, attendees said, gave clear indications that pre-trial alternatives can lower not just the cold number of people ending up behind bars, but cut down drastically on recidivism. Such options are relatively easy for Louisiana prosecutors to put in place. The state constitution allows the state’s prosecutors the option, essentially, of prosecuting whom they choose, when they choose and how they choose with some few exceptions. That unique provision gives Louisiana district attorneys tremendous power, but also generous opportunities for discretion.
Lafourche Parish District Attorney Camille Morvant II attended this year’s conference for the first time. It provided affirmation, he said, for directions his office has already taken. “Jail is not the answer for all the people we deal with as district attorneys,” Morvant said. “We use diversion as a tool.” Morvant said a key element of his administration has traditionally been drawing the line between career criminals and one-time offenders who have committed low-level crimes.
Morvant’s intervention program is used primarily for misdemeanors and in some rare instances for low-grade felonies. Assistants determine which pending cases involve good candidates, in most cases first-time offenders. The candidate’s court date is adjourned for 90 days, which is enough time for him or her to be registered into the program and meet initial participation requirements.
If all goes well, the second court date is adjourned indefinitely, and once the period of probation is completed, with costs, fines restitution or other requirements met, the case is dismissed. Requirements can include attendance at 12-step meetings, anger management courses and other proactive measures.
The benefit for the defendant is primarily that there is no record left behind, as well as no incarceration if the rules are followed. The benefit for society, prosecutors say, is no incarceration if the rules are followed, and the ability to keep a person who had a lapse in judgment employed and viable.
Prosecutors say more options for dealing with offenders exist than ever before. But there are limitations to what can be done.
One of the biggest is money. Most criminal defendants, Morvant notes, are at the lower end of the economic ladder. Fines and fees already put a dent into their budgets. Paying for more elaborate diversion options can make justice outcome options untenable for many. Morvant notes that his own office only has so much money to go around. But he is exploring with his staff what more can be done.
In Terrebonne Parish, one of the greater benefits has been licensing of the District Attorney’s Office itself as a substance abuse treatment provider through the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. That means specially trained in-house employees can handle outpatient treatment programs. Guidry is looking forward to his office and others having diversion personnel certified as diversion specialists. It will provide more options for grants and funding, he said, as well give a better level of service to residents.
While there is necessarily a punitive aspect to diversion programs, Guidry said, a vital component is the educational aspect. Boating safety offenders can take a course to correct their knowledge base; traffic offenders can take safe driving course. The potential for other options, Guidry said, is only limited by imagination and practicality.
He and other prosecutors note that diversion should not be confused with drug courts or DWI courts, which serve a different purpose. Drug court – Lafourche has one as well – takes someone whose offense is somehow related to drug use and perhaps the need to fuel a habit, through acts such as theft, and permit the person to enter a guilty plea. Rather than being sentenced to time, the offender has an opportunity to be placed under the jurisdiction of drug court and perform the tasks that are required of them to graduate from that program. If the person fails through non-attendance or other issues such as a new arrest, they are sentenced to the time they already would have served had they never entered drug court.
As he continues his work for Waitz, Guidry is also busy with planning next year’s conference, to give prosecutors, judges and others as full a toolkit as possible to work with trending justice issues relating to diversion. This year’s conference included talks on “Motivational Interviewing,” coping with the increased illicit use of prescription drugs, which has been called the “new crack cocaine” and how to best handle drugged drivers.
The Louisiana District Attorneys Association has announced that District Attorney David W. Burton has been elected President of the Association. Mr. Burton is District Attorney in the Thirty-sixth Judicial District of Louisiana in Beauregard Parish. He has previously served as LDAA President and as the Past President representative. Mr. Burton has the honor of being the first former President to serve in that capacity again. He also serves on the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, as Chairman of the LDAA Juvenile Justice Task Force, and as the LDAA representative on the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission (JJIC).
Also elected were:
First Vice President - Hillar C. Moore III, District Attorney (19th J.D., Baton Rouge)
Second Vice President - Christopher Bowman, Assistant District Attorney (Orleans Parish, New Orleans) Board Members - James C. Downs, District Attorney (9th J.D., Alexandria)
Board Members - Richard Z. Johnson, Jr., District Attorney (42nd J.D., Mansfield)
Board Members - S. Andrew “Andy” Shealy, First Assistant District Attorney (3rd J.D., Ruston)
Board Members - H. Todd Nesom, District Attorney (33rd J.D., Oberlin)
Board Members - Bradley R. Burget, District Attorney (7th J.D., Vidalia)
Board Members - J. Reed Walters, District Attorney (28th J.D., Jena)
Board Members - Charles J. Ballay, District Attorney (25th J.D., Belle Chasse)
Board Members - Ricky Babin, District Attorney (23rd J.D., Donaldsonville)
Board Members - Charles A. Riddle III, District Attorney (12th J.D., Marksville)
Board Members - Charles R. Scott, District Attorney (1st J.D., Shreveport)
Board Members - Dale Lee, Assistant District Attorney (19th J.D., Baton Rouge)
Board Members - Mark Pitre, District Attorney Investigator (32nd J.D., Houma)
Board Members - Paul D. Connick, Jr., District Attorney (24th J.D., Gretna)
The new officers begin their terms on August 15, 2014.
The Association is composed of District Attorneys, Assistant District Attorneys, and District Attorney Investigators in the State of Louisiana. It provides training and legal services for prosecutors across the State. The Association also develops and promotes legislation to strengthen the criminal justice system. Its members are available for testimony before legislative committees.
551 new laws to go into effect Friday in Louisiana
BATON ROUGE — More than 550 new laws take effect Friday, passed by lawmakers in the legislative session that ended in June.
Slug a referee at your child's sports game? You'll face jail time.
Sixteen and trying to improve your tan? You'll have to head outside because minors are barred from the tanning bed.
Want to snoop in your employee's social media accounts? You're prohibited from demanding access.
Many laws are minor, naming the mayhaw tree as Louisiana's official state fruit tree, or offering new specialized license plates for master gardeners and NRA members.
Others impact health care options and change educational programs.
Many of the laws focus on crime. For example, aiming a laser at an aircraft and flying drones over chemical plants are newly prohibited, carrying possible prison sentences for violators.
The late Lindy Boggs, the Louisiana National Guard's adjutant general and an appeals court judge from Metairie have been inducted to the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame. They are among eight people admitted during a ceremony Friday in Baton Rouge.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum Foundation, at the Angola prison farm, has selected people for its list since 2004. It honors them for their service in law enforcement, the judiciary, criminal justice, civil service and other fields, according to the National Guard.
Boggs, a U.S. representative from New Orleans and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, died in 2013. Her obituary at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune cited her "legendary personal warmth and practical intelligence that made her one of New Orleans' most revered figures through 60 years of public service."
Major Gen. Glenn Curtis was appointed to the adjutant's post in 2011 by Gov. Bobby Jindal. He has served in the state military force more than three decades. According to the National Guard, he was selected for the Hall of Fame because "he distinguished himself as a leader and a combat soldier to the state of Louisiana and the nation."
Judge Fredericka "Ricky" Wicker has served at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in Gretna since February 2006. The court hears appeals from Jefferson, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes. Before then, she was a member of the 24th Judicial District Court bench in Gretna.
This year's inductees also include the late Lindy Boggs; Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association; Beauregard Parish District Attorney David Burton, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and Jackson Parish Sheriff Andy Brown.
Other notable people who've been inducted into the Hall of Fame are former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten in 2012, U.S. District Judge Lance Africk in 2011 and Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore both in 2010.