Prosecution: More than just another leg

   

The third leg of our criminal justice system analogy involves prosecutions. We will be exploring the prosecution of felony-grade offenses only for the work performed by our District Attorney’s Office. We should all understand that not all felony offenses are “violent” in nature. Nor are all cases prosecuted by the District Attorney felony crimes. To keep this piece concise, it is necessary to exclude certain items and our focus remains on the increased violent crime trend being experienced in our communities.

The District Attorney is found in Article 5, Section 24 of the Louisiana State Constitution. There his powers are defined as having “…charge of every criminal prosecution by the state in his district, be the representative of the state before the grand jury in his district, and be the legal advisor to the grand jury. He shall perform other duties provided by law.” Before we go further it is worth mentioning that there are many “other duties” of a District Attorney. But again, we are focused on felony-grade offenses. The District Attorney also prosecutes many misdemeanor and traffic offenses. While some misdemeanor offenses may be classified as “crimes of violence” under the law they are also not being considered here.

Our state is divided into judicial districts each of which has an elected District Attorney. Lafayette Parish is part of a three-parish judicial district, along with Vermilion and Acadia Parish, known as the 15th Judicial District.

A Different Standard

We have all seen television disclaimers that say that the persons you have just seen committing a crime are “innocent until proven guilty.” Yes, the police may have witnessed the person committing a crime. Yes, the video may have captured the person committing a crime. However, they are still entitled to due process of law.

Not all crimes are that clear cut, though. Some require search warrants and detective work by police to identify a suspect. Only after the police establish probable cause can they may make an arrest. In a situation where they’re unsure whether probable cause exists, they may seek an arrest warrant. That process requires an evaluation by a Judge to determine whether probable cause exists. But in either instance, the threshold for a police officer to make an arrest is the existence of probable cause. That is a much lower standard than what a District Attorney is required to show.

If the final investigative product received by the District Attorney barely crosses the threshold of probable cause it is likely the matter will not be brought to trial. To bring a criminal case to a successful conclusion the District Attorney must prove to the much higher standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So, when it comes to effective policing, not only is criminal prevention a necessary element. Once an offense occurs police must have adequate time and resources to complete a thorough investigation for presentation to the District Attorney for prosecution. Inadequate police resources deployed in our community end up with officers just running from one call to the next with little prioritization. There is not much time to conduct adequate investigations, and certainly no time to concern themselves with their core mission of crime prevention.

Keep a close eye on the clock

In many regards the master of the District Attorney is not the people, it is the law (if they abide by it). The work of the District Attorney in prosecuting criminal matters involves a complex system of time frames. State law requires that a trial occur within two years from the institution of the prosecution in a felony matter and within three years in a capital matter. However, this timeline may be interrupted by the actions of a defendant or suspended when certain motions are filed pending a ruling from the court.

Another portion of the code of criminal procedure puts the onus on the defendant to file a motion for a speedy trial. Once that motion is filed it triggers, in a felony case, a 120-day time period by which to have that matter tried. if they have been in continuous custody (in jail). If they are not in custody, the time extends to 180 days. Under certain conditions, the court may suspend that motion.

There are a few more time-sensitive deadlines to consider. In capital cases, and some sex offenses, there is no time limitation by which the District Attorney must institute criminal proceedings. Otherwise, the District Attorney has six years to bring a felony case and four years to bring a relative felony case to trial following the date of the commission of the offense.

What does it all mean? In a criminal justice system that doesn’t have adequate jail space (or poorly manages it), fewer individuals wind up remaining in custody for longer periods of time or are unable to be booked at all. When subjects are not in custody the deadlines by which the District Attorney must act are extended. This extra time may allow the District Attorney to more carefully prepare and properly evaluate matters. However, it could also have an adverse effect, such as delaying prosecutions and allowing the same offenders to commit more crimes. This is the criminal revolving door you’ve heard so much about.

A random sampling

Last year when we looked at Lafayette’s violent crime problem. We showed you certain individuals who, while released from custody, ultimately reoffended by committing the most heinous act of violence: murder.

For this exercise, we pulled a random sampling of cases to review. In January of 2023, the District Attorney’s Office filed felony criminal charges on two hundred thirty-four (234) individuals. To clarify this is not the number of offenses charged as some of these individuals had multiple felony offenses. It is also not appropriate to say that two hundred thirty-four unique individuals were charged. That’s because several of the offenders were released and then charged for new acts. However, in all instances where the same person person is counted more than once, they were charged for occurrences on different dates; not the result of a single incident. In three instances, charges were filed through an Indictment. The remaining two hundred thirty-one (231) instances were charged through a Bill of Information.

Violent crime prosecution statistics

Here’s a breakdown of those offenses charged:

  • About 4.7% constituted the most egregious acts (murder, rape, and kidnapping);
  • 12.4% were for domestic abuse-related offenses;
  • 19.7% were property crimes (theft and burglary)
  • 31.6%, the lion’s share, were for drug-related offenses.

What is not known is how these cases were selected for prosecution and whether they represent an adequate cross-section of crimes committed in the community. Some say that District Attorneys lean toward prosecuting drug-related offenses thanks to asset forfeiture in drug cases. This concept has been termed “policing for profit.” Others have voiced concern over this segment of individuals being diverted to pre-trial intervention programs, like the ones run by Dusty Guidry.

What we do know is that the whole process lacks transparency. We specifically asked District Attorney Don Landry whether he compiled or kept any statistical information regarding the cases his office handles. We didn’t even get the courtesy of a response. You know the line… ‘I am too busy prosecuting crimes to be concerned with stuff like that!’ It’s the same line people hear on complaints of open meetings law violations and other matters in the purview of the District Attorney that he would prefer not to address.

We wonder if there is even an elected District Attorney in this state who still personally prosecutes cases himself. Would it be any different if we allowed our District Attorney’s offices to be managed by non-lawyers? Would we get better results? Maybe we would get fewer sly remarks or lectures about things we lay people aren’t capable of understanding.

Back to the numbers

Here’s the most interesting part of the data we reviewed. Of those individuals for whom the District Attorney’s Office filed felony criminal charges in January of 2023, 77.4% were no longer in custody. They had been released from jail. Of the 22.6% that were in jail when the District Attorney filed charges, 30.2% were in jail on other offenses (not the offense the DA charged them with). They had already been released from jail on the charge the District Attorney filed charges for and had been re-arrested for another offense!

Then there is the issue of timeliness. The average length of time from the date of the offense until the District Attorney filed charges was 260.3 days. Currently, approximately 133 of the offenses charged in January of 2023 (56.8%) remain open prosecutions. About 56 (23.9%) resulted in plea agreements. The final 45 (19.2%) were dismissed. For those matters, the average time from the date of offense to final adjudication is 446.2 days. The average number of days from the institution of prosecution to final adjudication is 176.7 days. When it comes to matters that remain open prosecutions, the average number of days from the institution of prosecution to present is 366.6 days. The average number of days from the date of offense to present is 619.1 days.

Jail population

Another interesting set of numbers to look at pertains to jail population demographics. We don’t mean the typical demographic information (i.e. race, sex, ethnic origin, etc.). Rather, it’s information related to the billing class. As we pointed out previously, from January 1 to September 30, 2023, the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center housed on average 602 prisoners daily, despite having a capacity of 954. We could get in the weeds with this and talk about rated bed capacity vs functional operational capacity, the impact of COVID, etc. But the bottom line is our jail can hold more prisoners.

When we look at the number of people held in jail for the selected time, 4.3% are Parish prisoners. These are prisoners sentenced to serve time in jail (not prison) for the commission of a misdemeanor offense or a relative felony offense for which they received a misdemeanor sentence. Department of Corrections (DOC) prisoners, individuals sentenced to serve time in state prison for the commission of a felony offense, make up 11.8%. While un-sentenced parish prisoners, those awaiting trial, possible conviction, and sentencing for a felony grade offense, made up 78.5%. That is a large number! Over 3/4 of the prisoners occupying jail space at the LPCC are largely the result of slowness by the Prosecutor or the Courts.

Fudging the numbers

Failed policies on crime prevention could also contribute to this number being high. However, once they have been arrested and booked into jail, it’s up to the Prosecutor and Courts to move them through the system. But before everyone starts pointing fingers at the District Attorney and Judges there is one more metric to consider. When comparing un-sentenced parish prisoners against the actual bed capacity of the jail, they only make up 49.6% instead of 78.5%. That’s because 36.8% of our actual jail space was unused during that period of time.

So, while Corrections up to this point remains the weakest leg of our stool, Prosecutions don’t fare much better. Coupled with a complete lack of transparency (the numbers provided are courtesy of our Clerk of Court’s Office, NOT the District Attorney) people, especially victims, should pay close attention, voice their concerns and opinions, and make sure they don’t become another faceless number on a violent crime spreadsheet.

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