Sheriff concerned over reducing bonds

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2000

VIDALIA – Concordia Parish’s sheriff, district attorney and district judges said they have serious reservations about reducing pre-trial prisoners’ bonds to reduce the police jury’s cost to care for prisoners.

While acknowledging bond reduction is appropriate for some first offenders, Sheriff Randy Maxwell said &uot;we work very hard to put people in jail. We’re not letting these folks out on the street to commit more crimes.&uot;

&uot;Setting a bond or reducing it is strictly a matter left to the discretion of the judges,&uot;&160;said District Attorney John Johnson. &uot;Personally, I’m proud to see more dope dealers, burglars and thieves behind bars.&uot;

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In Monday’s police jury meeting, Juror Gene Allen expressed concerns about the jury’s paying thousands of dollars for housing, feeding and health care for pre-trial prisoners while also having to foot the bill for criminal court expenses.

So jury President Charlie Blaney appointed jurors Allen, Cathy Darden and Melvin Ferrington to discuss with the judges the possibility of reducing bonds for non-violent local offenders as a solution to growing prisoner costs.

&uot;This wouldn’t be for habitual offenders, just first offenders – those who are arrested on charges like fighting or theft,&uot;&160;Allen said Thursday. &uot;I don’t think (crime) victims would have a problem with that.&uot;

The jury spent $99,297 on prisoner care last year, or $3.50 per day per pre-trial prisoner. The sheriff’s office pays the rest of the cost – $21.50 a day – for a total of $213,525 last year. The state pays for prisoners’ care once they are sentenced.

The sheriff’s office now houses 38 pre-trial prisoners at the Concordia Parish Correctional Facility and 17 at the courthouse jail. Most bonds for such prisoners are $30,000 and under, according to jail booking records.

Their offenses range from drug offenses and assaults to theft and parole violations.

&uot;Very few of those are first-time offenders,&uot; Maxwell said. And although some police jurors said prisoners stay in jail for six or seven months before trial, Maxwell said that is rare except in cases where the parties are waiting on crime lab evidence.

But while Allen acknowledged that several-month stays for pre-trial prisoners is uncommon, &uot;in the last eight or nine months, we’ve seen more of it, maybe 50 percent more … and I&160;don’t know why.&uot;

He estimated that about 20 people now jailed for non-violent offenses could be candidates for bond reduction, although he admitted that &uot;that is up to the judges.&uot;

Judge Leo Boothe and Judge Kathy Johnson of Seventh Judicial District Court both said Wednesday they have serious concerns about reducing bonds in most cases.

&uot;Our policy is to have significant bonds to keep serious criminals off the streets,&uot; Boothe said.

Judge Johnson also pointed out that under state law, judges are required to consider certain criteria when setting bond, including the person’s criminal history and the seriousness of the offense with which they are charged.

Still, she said she would be happy to set bonds at lower levels when possible and with certain conditions, such as nightly curfews, if the police jury and the sheriff’s office had enough money to hire an officer to check on whether those bond conditions were being met.

But neither the jury nor the sheriff’s office has the money to do that, she noted. &uot;And I can’t go and check to see whether these people are breaking curfew or not,&uot;&160;Judge Johnson added.

Maxwell said his office does not have the resources to devote one officer to check bond conditions and doubts the jury has the money either. The already cash-strapped jury lost $564,000 in ad valorem taxes and the Sheriff’s Office lost $547,000 from bankrupt Fruit of the Loom this year.

&uot;Besides, it would take five or six officers to check all of those people,&uot;&160;Maxwell said. &uot;How many people can you check on (for curfew violations) at one time with just one person?&uot;

Either the jury needs to look at ways to reduce costs or &uot;someone&uot;&160;needs to consider ways to speed up the justice process if possible, although he acknowledged hard work on the part of the District Attorney’s Office.

But with the Fruit of the Loom tax losses, jurors have repeatedly said they must cut costs wherever possible.

And John Johnson said his office is &uot;taking any steps we can to expedite the process.&uot; He cited a recent court day when 12 guilty pleas were accepted in cases no more than six months old.

At the same time, additional space for prisoners has meant housing a larger number of pre-trial prisoners – and increased costs for both the Police Jury and the Sheriff’s Office.

The jury paid only $51,673 for prisoner care in 1997, the year the Concordia Parish Correctional Facility was built. That facility holds 380 prisoners, most of them state prisoners. But 38 of those prisoners, and 17 at the courthouse jail, are parish prisoners awaiting trial. The new facility gives the Sheriff’s Office space to hold more prisoners – and Maxwell said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

By law, the courthouse jail can only hold 48 prisoners. &uot;So without that additional space, we would go back to having to go through (the jail) and see which ones we would have to release because we didn’t have the room for them,&uot;&160;Maxwell said.

Both Maxwell and John Johnson, along with the judges, said they would be glad to meet with jurors about prisoner costs as well as financial problems in the parish’s criminal court funds, which goes to pay for the expenses of the criminal court.

Also on Thursday, Allen said he does not believe his serving as chairman of the jury committee and working as a bail bondsman is a conflict of interest as he looks at prisoner care costs and criminal court fund woes.

&uot;I&160;would make more money if the bonds were higher,&uot; Allen said. &uot;I’m only interested in reducing the cost to the jury.&uot;