By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – The first-ever St. Tammany criminal justice accountability study confirmed a lot about law enforcement in the parish that many have long been saying, without hard facts to back it up.
The report by the Metropolitan Crime Commission was commissioned by the Northshore Business Council and had two key conclusions while complimenting the St. Tammany justice system in general:
–Law enforcement in St. Tammany Parish is well above the national average in seeking to eradicate the most violent crimes with a focus on felony arrests.
–Crime in St. Tammany Parish is relatively low on the North Shore compared to the national average.
Violent crime rates in St. Tammany per 100,000 residents are 60 percent below the national average, and 70 percent below the Louisiana average.
Additionally, anyone who thinks St. Tammany policemen are focusing on handing out a lot of traffic tickets were surprised to see that it is an extremely low priority for lawmen when approaching crime in general.
While 26 percent of the arrests in the parish are for felony or violent crimes, compared to the national average of 14 percent, only 3 percent of arrests were for traffic offenses.
“The low rate of traffic arrests is another indication that police agencies in St. Tammany Parish are using discretion in their use of arrest to enforce less serious violations,” the report said.
For that matter, the only real criticism of any kind was a recommendation for police and prosecuting agencies to find ways to increase the time period from arrest to a decision to prosecute.
The report showed that police take an average of 28 days to submit reports to the district attorney’s office to decide if a case will be prosecuted. The DA’s Office takes an average of 19 days to review all the evidence through its screening department, which leads to the decision to prosecute or not.
The report suggested that is an unnecessary delay that frequently involves a suspect remaining in jail when they might be out, thereby costing the parish money.
“The delays increase the time that suspects are held in custody, which increases costs to taxpayers to house people in jail and requires the Sheriff’s Office to maintain a larger felony pretrial inmate population,” the report added.
The second recommendation from the report was to ensure that the ability for a suspect to be admitted to the 22nd Judicial Court Diversion Program was not hampered if an individual could not pay the costs associated with it.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery was among the speakers at the Northshore Business Council luncheon when results of the report were released for business leaders and public officials to hear it.
He pointed out that one of the early priorities after he was elected over two years ago was to increase the staff in the screening department. When he first took office there was only one part-time person reviewing cases to make a decision for prosecuting. Since that time he has added three more staff members and utilizes up to five lawyers to improve that wait time.
“When it comes to increasing the time for a decision on prosecuting you have to still remember that it is important to have good data, which leads to better results, better decisions, a better community and better business. We don’t want to rush people through the process and then have them out to commit more crimes,” he explained.
But he was in complete agreement about the continued effort with new Sheriff Randy Smith to do all they can to improve the waiting time from arrest to prosecution decision, something that has improved substantially thanks to his focus on beefing up the screening department staff.
Montgomery also said that when he took office “all these decisions and work were on paper. We are slowly moving to a paperless courtroom and that is speeding things up to have access to arrest information electronically,” he said. “It’s something we are working on and we’re already seeing it’s much more effective to have this new system.”
He expects the entire 22nd Judicial operation to be paperless within 12 months, something he said has also been assisted greatly by new Clerk of Court Melissa Henry, who has worked to make that change in her department as well since she took office two years ago.
Smith, also part of the new law enforcement leadership team in the parish that replaced a former sheriff and D.A. who had both been in office for over 20 years, said “we are moving in the right direction, but there is always room for improvement. But I think the statistics show we are focusing on violent crimes and we will continue to do that.
“We have a very safe parish and that’s thanks to the men and women we have working in our departments,” Smith added. “We will continue to have a zero tolerance approach to criminal behavior.”
The Diversion Programs in St. Tammany were started 18 years ago and seen as a model across the state, with other parishes contacting the 22nd Judicial judges for direction on starting similar programs. The new court announced on Monday aims at helping veterans who have run into trouble with the law. Currently there are specialty areas for Adult Drug Court, Family Preservation Court, Sobriety Court, Behavioral Health Court, Re-Entry Court and now the new Veterans Court.