DA defends forgiveness program that police jury blames for deficit

RAPIDES PARISH, La. (KALB) - There were some tense moments between the Rapides Parish Police Jury and the District Attorney's Office earlier this month as special prosecutor Hugo Holland said he would sue on behalf of the DA's Office if the police jury cut their office's budget by half a million dollars.

"If you make me sue you, which I will do, but if you make me sue you, I'm not just going to be asking for the $887,000," said Holland to the police jury at a March 5 meeting. "I'm also asking for the $1.8 million that comes from the criminal court fund and I'm also asking for the $2.8 million that is self generated."

That move led the police jury to hire a private attorney of its own, Jimmy Faircloth, at a rate of $250 an hour, just in case.

The parish's treasurer, Bruce Kelly, says the DA's pre-trial intervention program, which reroutes money from the criminal court fund directly to the DA's Office, has put the parish's general fund in a $400 thousand deficit. And, that's hurting funding for programs across the board.

In the last year, the DA's Office generated upwards of $2 million through PTI.

Here's how the offer works - you pay a sliding fee directly to the DA's Office, complete any necessary steps like rehab or getting a GED, and your charges are dismissed. It's advertised as a way to give "non-violent offenders" a second chance.

District Attorney Phillip Terrell is defending the program and insists talk of a lawsuit was not a threat.

"That wasn't how it was meant," he said. "But, you can certainly characterize a motion to cut to effectively gut our office and would net us having $825 thousand less to operate this year, that might constitute a threat as well."

He said his hand was forced.

"If the DA's Office is required to cut 10-percent, everybody else ought to look at theirs as well," he said. "And, not only that, look at ways they can increase revenue that's out there."

Last year, his office brought in roughly $2.8 million in self-generated funds, $2.2 million of which he said came from the pre-trial intervention program.

But, the police jury's treasurer says that has come at the expense of the parish, a $400 thousand deficit in the general fund.

Annual audits show since 2015, Terrell's first year as DA, the office made upwards of $2 million year year through PTI. That's roughly six times the amount District Attorney James "Jam" Downs brought in during his last year as DA.

Here's a look at the figures.

2013: $285,843
2014: $360,500
2015: $2,004,400
2016: $2,228,138
2017: $2,200,000

It's important to note that in 2015, the audit classified those earnings as "charges for services." That's due to a different auditing firm's method of classifying. Also, the figure for 2017 isn't exact because the annual audit has not been completed yet.

Terrell says he can understand why some might raise an eyebrow at those figures. But, he claims that putting people through PTI helps get lives back on track and saves the taxpayer in the end.

"In the long run, the idea is that it is cheaper on the taxpayer if they stay productive," said Terrell.

But, Terrell's been met with criticism of the program by the police jury and others.

Mike Shannon spent nearly 30 years as a top prosecutor in the parish, overseeing about 40 homicide trials. He said when the program began it had good intentions.

"It was clearly a program designed to give youthful first-time offenders a second chance," said Shannon. "Those are misdemeanors or small felonies where there was little or no harm to victims."

Shannon claims the desire for money got in the way when Terrell came on board.

"Our meetings immediately focused on PTI and they came up with a plan or a schedule that the minimum fee would be $1,000," said Shannon.

He said a fee that high was excluding people who truly qualified for PTI, but didn't have that kind of money.

"Do I take this real good opportunity of PTI and pay $1,000 which I can't afford or do I go to court and pay less, but then get a criminal conviction and down the road I can't get a job and it limits me for the rest of my life," he said.

Terrell disputes that claim.

Shannon says what bothered him the most was that some cases that shouldn't have qualified for PTI now did.

For instance, in June 2014 when McKennedy Armstead walked off a parish work detail and stole a city truck. After he ditched it, he called on a relative, Antonio Calhoun, for help driving him to Colfax to his girlfriend Johnnie Kite's house.

Calhoun helped load up her kids in the car while Armstead locked himself and Kite in the house. It became a murder-suicide.

Calhoun was charged with accessory after the fact to Armstead's escape, his fifth arrest. A year later he was placed on PTI. His charge was dismissed last year. Terrell points out that Calhoun's prior conviction, one where he pleaded guilty to resisting an officer, was a misdemeanor.

Or, in October 2016 when Sedrick Good was charged with second degree robbery in a case where he "inflicted serious bodily injury" to the victim. It was his third arrest.

Last year he was placed in PTI. Six months after that, he was charged in connection with a case where a local business owner was beaten and hit with a car.

To be clear, no law prohibits the district attorney's authority of deciding which cases qualify for the program. But, Shannon says the DA's Office is putting money above actually prosecuting crimes.

"The district attorney is given a lot of discretion. There's reasons for that," he said. "There are good reasons for that. I doubt if you would ever seen any oversight because they have too much power. If money comes into the decision making, it's going to be abused."

Terrell's heard that criticism before and insists that many of the PTI cases are LACE overtime tickets. But, he says a committee is now in place to make sure those cases other cases don't slip through.

"In the past did it happen? Maybe so, because of the volume," said Terrell. "But, I can tell you for the last year or year and a half that's how we operate."

He also believes detractors are cherry-picking the failures.

"I believe in my diversion program," he said. "The reason that I don't do like other district attorneys and tout on our Facebook all the success stories is because I don't want to embarrass the success stories."

Terrrell argues that the bigger problem the parish is facing is missed opportunities. For instance, he says there's nearly $2.2 million in uncollected fines and court costs. He also blames a rising cost to care for inmates due to jail overcrowding as an expense that needs to be addressed.

Still, he said he's committed to working things out with the police jury. And, when it comes to the lawsuit: "That's certainly not where the DA's Office wants to go."

Terrell also gave us some information about disbursements, that's the amount of money that's spread back out through the criminal court fund through fines and court costs. Those figures show in 2015 and 2016 the money was down about a million dollars, but last year it was back up and he says its climbing.



 
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