EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - A new East Baton Rouge Parish criminal justice policy will significantly quicken the legal process for people who are arrested, meaning residents who cannot pay bail will not have to wait weeks in prison for arraignment or a court date.
The new rule mandates prosecutors present an arrested person to a judge within 72 hours of their detainment. Under previous policy, it took between four and 12 weeks for a person to be officially charged with a crime, District Attorney Hillar Moore says.
In some cases, an innocent person may sit in prison for several weeks because he or she cannot afford bail, only to have charges against them dropped. Research indicates people who spend any time in prison, whether innocent or guilty, are more likely to be arrested for another crime later on.
“Sometimes you just run out and try to do something real, real fast to try and catch up with time that you end up failing again,” Willie McGhee, a former prisoner, said. “You feel lonely and you feel like you’ve been deserted.”
McGhee says crime became his career, but he’s in the process of turning his life around through a ministry in Baton Rouge. He was bailed out of jail for the first time by a group earlier in 2019.
“I’d never bonded out of jail before in my life, and I’ve been going in and out of jail for a long time," he said. “You get lost in the system with this backlog and you’re just sitting there waiting.”
Advocates for the change have long argued the policy continues a cycle of poverty because most employers will not tolerate weeks of missed work while an employee sits in prison, even if charges are dropped.
“If you just tell your job, ‘I’m not coming for a week because I’m in jail,’ you don’t have a job anymore,” Baton Rouge NAACP head, Eugene Collins, said. “Families are at a real disadvantage because these folks are in jail for small fines they don’t have the ability to pay.”
McGhee says in addition to the financial strain it can place on a family, the old policy also prevents prisoners from seeking help or treatment.
The change, which Moore says will be implemented in the “next few weeks,” requires law enforcement to file paperwork faster. It may also require judges to change their schedules to accommodate more frequent work.
Moore says he expects a strain on his office during the first few months under the new policy, but that the change was the “right thing to do.”
“All the work is going to be done on the front end, and you’ll see a benefit on the back end," Moore said. “The best thing about this is no one will ever get left behind in prison.”
Moore says the change should help reduce the prison population and create millions in savings over the next few years that his office can use to hire more attorneys and further expedite the process.