November 23, 2019 by Tom Aswell (Louisiana Voice)
Pre-trial intervention (PTI) programs, in theory at least, are designed to give those charged with a first offense—such as driving while intoxicated (DWI), for example—to keep the conviction off their record by participating in a program of community service or a series of classroom sessions, usually extended over a period of several weeks.
The purpose of the programs, again in theory, is that not every person charged with an offense should be subjected to criminal prosecution and that there are those who can be prevented from becoming repeat offenders through proper intervention.
The problem with Louisiana’s PTI programs is that there is no uniform application or oversight, allowing local district attorneys complete autonomy in how the programs are administered.
Instead of serving their intended purpose, many local PTI programs have morphed into cash cows and as such, lend themselves to widespread abuses at the expense of other programs such as indigent defender boards and local law enforcement.
In May 2018, former Baton Rouge Advocate (now Associated Press) reporter Jim Mustian wrote an excellent story that illustrated that very point. His entire story may be seen HERE.
Mustian showed that from 2012 to 2017, two parishes in particular had taken advantage of the program to create a lucrative source of income for prosecutors while a third did even better during the years from 2012 to 2017.
Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John DeRosier saw income for his office increase threefold, from $556,000 in 2012 to $1.65 million in 2016. Jefferson Parish did even better with its income from PTI programs increasing four times, from $335,000 to $1.37 million during the same period.
But Rapides Parish DA Phillip Terrell has turned the practice into an art form, boosting his PTI revenue by a factor of seven, from $302,000 in 2012 to a mind-blowing $2.2 million in 2017.
Still, that influx of new dollars didn’t keep Terrell from requesting more than $2.5 million in parish funds for his office in 2018 despite a looming budgetary shortfall of $427,000 for the parish.
That was enough to attract the attention of online publication Politico, which normally devotes its attention to stories of national and international significance than to the budgetary problems of a parish situated in the middle of Louisiana. Politico’s story can been read in its entirety HERE.
Rapides Parish Treasurer Bruce Kelly wondered why the DA’s office was suddenly asking for more funds than at any time in his 30 years in the parish treasurer’s office knowing, as he did, that the DA had a new fleet of vehicles with leather seats.
He soon learned why.
Pre-trial diversion, otherwise known as pre-trial intervention, or PTI.
The DA’s income from court fines had dropped by nearly half, from $900,000 to $500,000 over the past three years. That corresponded with a similar drop in traffic tickets issued—from 12,000 per year to 7,000.
At the same time, however, Terrell’s office had significantly increased its PTI program, allowing offenders to pay money to the DA in exchange for charges being dropped and their cases dismissed, thus keeping their tickets or arrests off their records as though they never happened.
Offenders were charged dismissal fees ranging from $250 for traffic tickets, $500 for misdemeanors and as high as $1,500 for felonies.
And Terrell’s office, Kelly learned, was keeping that money for itself—money that should have gone into the parish’s general fund to be shared with indigent defender offices and the sheriff’s office.
Believing Terrell was depriving the parish of fine money to which it was entitled, Kelly and the parish leadership filed suit against Terrell’s office in an effort to get the court to force the DA to share its PTI revenue.
Terrell responded that he could make as much as he wanted through PTI because…well, because the law didn’t say otherwise.
And he was right in the assertion that there were no statewide standards to the implementation and operation of PTI programs and thus, no restrictions as to his ability to exploit the program.
To make his case, he brought in a hired gun in the person of Hugo Holland, a prosecutor who normally works only as a prosecutor in criminal cases and who appears to be on the payroll of several parish district attorneys simultaneously, from Caddo Parish in north Louisiana to Calcasieu Parish in the state’s southwestern extreme.
The battle between Terrell and Rapides Parish Police Jury took on true Trumpian overtones when Holland threatened the police jury members with investigations into their own use of funds if they did not agree to drop their fight with his client. When that tactic failed, Terrell filed a countersuit arguing that he did not owe any money to the parish and calling the police jury’s lawsuit “politically-driven.”
It’s easy to see why Terrell is so possessive of his sudden stream of income—and why similar battle lines could be drawn between prosecutors and parish governing bodies as more and more DAs are made aware of the untapped revenue windfalls currently available to them.
It’s also pretty easy to predict an intense lobbying campaign by the Louisiana District Attorneys Association (LDAA) to protect PTI programs from regulation should some state lawmaker have the temerity to introduce legislation to rein in such a lucrative enterprise.
I’m willing to bet even money that Arkansas would have a better chance of beating LSU today than any such bill would have of making it out of committee.