Under strain, Lafayette reboots criminal justice workgroup

Monique Blanco Boulet using hand gestures
Mayor-President Monique Boulet has revived a multi-agency collaborative designed to get disparate parts of the criminal justice system on the same page. Image courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

With local law enforcement and corrections under increasing pressure, Mayor-President Monique Boulet has revived a multi-agency collaborative designed to get disparate parts of the criminal justice system on the same page.

The Lafayette Parish Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee’s rebirth is coming at a crucial time, as Lafayette grapples with an all-time high murder rate, an overcrowded jail that has police officers and arrestees sitting for hours as they await booking in the parish jail, and new state laws likely to put more pressure on a financially strapped court system. 

“We have too many people in jail and not enough officers on the streets,” says Holly Howat, the committee’s former executive director. “[And] there are big changes with the effective ending of parole and high staff turnover in the public defender's office that I hope the CJCC addresses.”

The CJCC, as it has come to be known, took root in 2013 under then Sheriff Mike Neustrom. According to The Advocate, Neustrom envisioned it as a policy board that would create a less fragmented system where everyone would look beyond their own doors for solutions.

“The problem with most jurisdictions is you’ve got a lot of different people doing their own thing in isolation, not together,” Neustrom told the newspaper. “This is an attempt to coordinate and unify parts of the system,” the sheriff added, acknowledging the difficulty of the work ahead.

Within a year of its launch, the first CJCC funded the position of executive director and tapped Holly Howat for the part-time post. She served until 2019. Howat and others have re-engaged the committee in new roles.

Howat, who founded and serves as executive director of Beacon Community Connections, says her replacement at CJCC did not stay on after the first Covid lockdown.

“For a time, I had a Beacon staff member with a background in criminal justice help to facilitate the meetings, but that died out, too,” Howat says. “By that time, I was an outsider to most of the meetings, and from that perspective, I didn't see a strong champion interested in keeping it going.”

Howat believes “a combination of timing, a global pandemic, a lack of leadership and apathy about collaboration” led to the committee’s dormancy.

MP Boulet leads discussion with criminal justice group
Boulet (at head of table) has offered the resources of her office and executive staff until the newly constituted Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee can take on the cost of those services. Photo by Leslie Turk

Among the groups the new CJCC has brought back to the table this year are judges, the clerk of court, the police chief and sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender’s office and the school superintendent.

Boulet, who is chairing the committee with Sheriff Mark Garber as vice-chair, hopes to engage UL’s Blanco Center (named for her late mother, the state’s first female governor), in data collection and analysis to drive the committee’s decision making.

The Blanco Center’s director of research, Dr. Anna Osland, says the center joined the CJCC to help it understand how to use data to make evidence-informed decisions. “We worked with Monique and her team when she was at [the Acadiana Planning Commission], and her invitation to us to attend the CJCC meetings stems from some of that work. At this point we’re listening to see what’s the best way we can assist,” Osland says. “We will need to set up a data sharing agreement with them to review and analyze their data.”

One of the issues on the front burner for the committee is overcrowding at the parish jail, and a subcommittee has been tasked with finding short- and long-term solutions.

Lafayette City Court Judge Jules Edwards says that while judges, jailers, prosecutors and defense attorneys regularly communicate, formally and informally, to manage the jail’s population, the CJCC is needed to bring other stakeholders to address systemic issues impacting the incarcerated population.

“When the key leaders in law enforcement, prosecution, criminal defense, mental health treatment, substance use disorder treatment, and public health get together to discuss the operation of the adult and juvenile criminal justice system in our parish, we can identify the barriers and gaps that interfere with our capacity to provide public safety and access to justice,” says Edwards, “and then work toward bridging those gaps and overcoming those barriers with the resources currently available — and identify the need for additional resources.”

Edwards was a district court judge when the CJCC initially launched in 2013, and while he wasn’t the 15th JDC’s rep, he regularly attended meetings.

Boulet has offered the resources of her office and executive staff until the newly constituted committee can take on the cost of those services.