Baton Rouge Leaders look to Open New Misdemeanor Jail that will Unfairly Lock up More Poor Blacks

Another jail? That’s right, leaders are discussing opening a jail that would basically lock people up over unpaid traffic tickets. In an article published by The Advocate they spoke with Constable Reginal Brown, who many in Baton Rouge look to as a fighter for blacks, would run the facility. Brown told the advocate he felt it was important to compel people to pay their debts. “It’s vitally important,” he said. “We’re leaving a lot of money on the table because we’re not collecting it and don’t have the resources to do it.”

 The break down on how things would be ran since the city can’t afford to open a jail year round is to open it intermittently. A few weeks out of the year they will target some of the more than 104,000 outstanding misdemeanor warrants from City Court, and another 60,000 more misdemeanor warrants from the 19th Judicial District Court. More than 60% of these offenders are people who simply have not paid parking tickets or appeared at court for them. According to The Advocate there are violent misdemeanor defendants charged with domestic violence and simple battery, some of the most egregious repeat offenders — with more than a dozen warrants out for their arrest — are facing charges for relatively minor nonviolent crimes like noise ordinance violations and drinking in public. The plan is to use a small jail in the basement of city court which can house about 150 people. The building isn’t fitted with a cafeteria so the inmates would eat McDonald’s cheese burgers.

The problem with all of this is, it will unfairly target the poor and blacks. With the climate of race relations in America and police interaction with people of color, we should be looking for ways to keep people out of jail, not ways to lock more up. This is what happens when you have a district attorney, sheriff, and police chief all white. We continue to be lead by people who are not from the communities they police. Being from Baton Rouge doesn’t help you to understand being black in Baton Rouge. If a person hasn’t paid a parking fine or a speeding ticket in Baton Rouge it is more than likely because they can’t afford to do so. It isn’t in the best interest of public policy to jail the poor because they can’t pay. When people are left to choose between paying rent, putting gas in the car, a light bill, or a parking fine, let’s face it, the ticket just isn’t getting paid.

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Photo from www.BRAF.org city stats report 2013

How can I validate my point? According to a report by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, blacks in Baton Rouge have a median income of $35, 476. Compare that to whites who have a median income in Baton Rouge of $81,251 and you catch my drift. Blacks also happen to be the majority of those pulled over by police statistically nationwide, so I’m willing to bet my chips the majority of those on that list for traffic violations are black. Which means the majority of those arrested to be jailed in this misdemeanor jail will be poor blacks. As a city, we can do better than that.

Another issue is how can we open another jail when we aren’t funding parish prison properly? Dr. Rani Whitfield who is a contract physician for the EBR Parish prison along with many of the nursing staff from the prison recently went to a city council meeting. Dr. Whitfield read a letter he wrote to councilmembers about the condition of medical care at parish prison. He stated, “on average the prison has 1500 inmates or more at any given time. On many occasions, especially the evening shift, there have only been 1, 2, or 3, nurses in the building. There should be 5, to asses new inmates who may be unstable.” In the letter to the council he addresses how the nursing staff is grossly underpaid. The average nurse in correctional facilities earns about $77,000 a year. The highest paid nurse in EBR parish prison according to Dr. Whitfield earns just under $25/hr. If you do the math that’s $52,000 a year. Nursing staff in the prison is paid $25,000 under the national average. Yet we are talking about potentially adding to their burden? What will happen with these offenders after they are housed in the temporary space for 2 days they will be transferred to parish prison for misdemeanor crimes. This adds more of a strain on an already over-crowded prison, with underpaid staff.

This is something we as citizens of this city should oppose. Should people pay their fines, certainly, but getting jail time over parking tickets is a waste of tax payer dollars. We need leaders that come up with real solutions that don’t further perpetuate and foster negative relationships with blacks and the law enforcement community. Sandra Bland was stopped for a simple traffic violation, went to jail and died. Jail should be reserved for criminals who shouldn’t be on the streets. It should not be used to get money off the table the way Constable Brown thinks it should. A city building policy against its majority needs new leadership. This idea isn’t leadership, its bad policy to fix poor management of financial resources.