Duke: Few use non-jail program; Diversion course only selected about 25 times a year

Published 6:21 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

Not everyone who commits a crime in Bogalusa goes to jail.

Not everyone who is found guilty ends up with a record.

For some people, for many juveniles and for some first-time offenders, there is another way.

David Merlin Duke is the city’s prosecutor. For the most part, his job is straightforward — he prosecutes anyone accused of a variety of misdemeanors in Bogalusa, from driving while intoxicated to shoplifting to simple assault.

But he also oversees the city’s diversion program, a program where people who plead guilty to a nonviolent crime can choose to pay a fee and work with Duke to stay clear of trouble.

If they can do this, there’s no record of the charge. The program isn’t easy, it’s not free, but it does offer the closest thing to a second chance that the city’s justice system has to offer. Even so, almost no one charged with a crime in Bogalusa uses it.

Duke said the program doesn’t have many participants because, first, his office isn’t staffed enough to oversee many cases. Also, not many people qualify for the program. Finally, when defendants enter the diversion program, Duke has to allow them to enter and so he said he’s essentially putting his own name on the line — and he doesn’t like to do that if there’s a chance the person will re-offend while completing the program.

“What I always tell a defendant that this connects my caboose to their train car,” he said. “If they don’t do what they’re supposed to do by maybe committing another crime or not following trough with the program, them my reputation is aligned with them.”

Duke is serving an elected position, and he said it could look bad if he offers people a chance to have otherwise embarrassing charges like driving while intoxicated or theft dropped if they turn around and repeat the same offense, or do something worse.

Of course, as it stands, anyone who is facing a DWI charge could post bond, walk out of jail and that same day get a second DWI charge.

“But that wouldn’t have my name associated with it,” Duke pointed out.

In addition, violent offenders don’t go through the program.

“So someone who beats up someone wouldn’t know about it because I wouldn’t mention it to them,” he said.

Also, if a person is accused of a theft or of destruction of property, the victim of the crime has to agree that the defendant can go through the diversion program.

So, between Duke’s small staff and his reluctance to offer the program to just anyone, he said the program only gets around 25 people per year.

“We give a diversion program for first time offenders with nonviolent charges,” Duke said. “We sort of mimic the district attorney’s diversion program that’s offered on a case by case basis depending on if it’s a nonviolent charge.”

In late June, the Southern Poverty Law Center named the city court and City Judge Robert Black as defendants in a suit on behalf of four suspects charged with misdemeanors. According to the SPLC’s lawsuit, Black is charging defendants illegal fees to extend payment deadlines and he is operating a so-called debtor’s prison, because he is allegedly jailing people who are too poor to pay fines when they do not pay.

One of the plaintiffs in the SPLC case, Rozzie Scott, is alleged to have stolen $5 of food to feed his family. Now, too poor to pay his family, he faces hundreds of dollars in court costs and fines.

Duke was not named in the suit, and he said he believes he is not prosecuting anyone who should not be prosecuted.

“I am lucky I am not named in the suit,” he said. “Obviously, I go about prosecuting as blindly as I can.”

Duke wouldn’t comment in on specifics of the SPLC case, but he did say that the fact that such a case is prosecuted doesn’t in and of itself reflect unfairness or bias. Duke pointed out that the defendant could have had several prior convictions and, he added, the amount of stolen goods shouldn’t in and of itself determine prosecution.

“A theft is a theft,” he said.

But Duke added that he does try to ensure the diversion program is open to everyone.

“Fair to me seems to be equal application of the law, and yet equal access to alternatives,” he said. “That’s the only way I can put my head on the bed at night … I try to do the same thing in similar cases and also offer the same things as alternatives to a variety of people. None of it is based on their wealth or their color or their religion.”

Duke said there are defendants who know the city’s legal system, know him and do request diverted sentencing. The city prosecutor said that for every one of those cases he accepts, he tries to offer the program to someone who doesn’t know the system.

“If there’s a spot for someone who can know how to request it, then there’s a spot for someone who doesn’t know it exists,” he said.

Quite often, Duke said, many of the defendants in Judge Black’s courtroom will be familiar faces.

“Most people who commit crimes, especially those who commit them repeatedly, aren’t the kind that give two thoughts about the damage they cause,” he said. “In Bogalusa, we’re in a weird position. We don’t have new businesses coming in.

:We don’t have the economic growth projected. What we do have is a lot of people who don’t see an economic future.”

Duke said in such a situation, some people don’t see any hope.

But can a justice system restore such a thing? Duke said he doesn’t know.

“How do I as a prosecutor or we as a court system correct that,” Duke asked.