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|Differences surface over criminal court|
Judge Sharon Marchman says 4th Judicial District Court will reduce the number of judges assigned to hear criminal cases from six jurists to five.
That decision does not sit well with some officials involved with the criminal justice system.
"When we got approval for our two new judges to come on the bench, we agreed that we were willing to commit both of those judges for one year to address the criminal backlogs, and we have," said Marchman, chief judge at 4th Judicial District Court.
"The criminal pre-trial detainees are way down now," Marchman said.
Marchman's comment about the new judgeships at 4th Judicial District Court was in reference to the Legislature's decision last year to create additional judgeships for Ouachita and Morehouse parishes. Ouachita and Morehouse were granted the new judicial posts to help alleviate a backlog of cases in the 4th Judicial District Court, including criminal cases.
One Ouachita Correctional Center (OCC) official disagreed with Marchman's assessment that pre-trial detainees housed at OCC were "way down."
OCC Warden Brian Newcomer said the number of pre-trial detainees was "very high."
OCC currently houses 582 pre-trial detainees, or inmates awaiting trial on criminal charges. On June 23, 2008, OCC housed 618 pre-trial inmates.
Newcomer said that was not a significant decline.
"To me, having 30 less over a 12-month period, that's not significant," Newcomer said.
Newcomer said the lower number of detainees could be just as easily attributed to a general decline in the prison's population.
While OCC currently houses 969 inmates, this time last year there were just over 1,000 inmates at the parish prison, according to Newcomer.
That means the proportion of pre-trial detainees to the general inmate population remains steady, Newcomer said.
"To me, to have significantly less pre-trialers, you're talking having 75 or a 100 less pre-trialers," Newcomer said. "This is just 30 or so."
Ouachita Parish police juror Walt Caldwell also questioned Marchman's assertion that the two new judges approved by the Legislature last year were only temporarily assigned to hear criminal matters at 4th Judicial District Court.
When asked to elaborate, Caldwell said, "It may be a misunderstanding on my part, but I thought it was to be in perpetuity until the pre-trial detainee problem was solved."
"That problem hasn't been solved," said Caldwell, an attorney who often handles criminal cases at district court.
Caldwell served as president of the Ouachita Parish Police Jury until earlier this year. He presided over the police jury as OCC began to encounter budgetary problems in light of the high number of pre-trial detainees it houses. OCC faces a more than $1 million deficit heading into the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, because of costs associated with overcrowding and housing a high number of pre-trial detainees.
For months, Caldwell said he and his peers at the police jury have frequently noted the biggest problem facing OCC was the high number of pre-trial detainees versus the number of Department of Corrections prisoners the parish prison keeps.
Expenses associated with housing DOC inmates are paid by the state.
Expenses related to housing inmates awaiting trial, however, fall to the police jury and, ultimately, the taxpayers of Ouachita Parish.
Caldwell said reducing the number of judges hearing criminal cases at 4th Judicial District Court could lead to more budget problems at OCC.
"I'm concerned about the judges' consideration of reducing the number of sections of criminal court because we still have very high numbers of pre-trial detainees, more than the current millage can really handle," Caldwell said.