Avoyelles' "pre-trial diversion’ program keeps tickets off drivers' records

Practice reduces revenue to fine-supported agencies

If you get a speeding ticket in Avoyelles Parish, there’s probably a 30 percent chance it won’t show up on your driving record.

All you have to do is take a mail-in test and pay a fee to the District Attorney's Office as part of the parish’s Pre-Trial Intervention (PTI) or “diversion” program.

Diversion is a program meant to prioritize rehab over punishment and keep low-level offenders out of jail. Louisiana prosecutors sometimes use it on traffic tickets, even though speeders have almost no chance of landing in jail. The program sparked an investigation by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor this past summer. The auditor found that the program in DeSoto Parish cost the justice system $1 million.

DA Charles Riddle said his office makes more money per ticket off diverted tickets versus tickets that go to court, with a total of $272,919 in 2017 in fees from this program. Figures for 2018 were unavailable. For comparison, that's more than half the public defender’s entire budget.

Riddle noted that after paying State Police and other agencies involved in that program, his office netted about $100,000 from diverted tickets.

In addition to that, the DA’s office also has salary costs for employees working in that program.

MAIN BENEFIT

The main benefit of the program is that it “keeps traffic tickets off of the driving records of citizens,” Riddle said.

But the Sheriff’s Office, the court and the public defender get only a small fraction of this revenue. That has prompted some complaints from the other agencies.

Until recently, those offices didn't get anything at all.

“That's what PTI does,” 12th Judicial District Judge William “Billy” Bennett said. “It raises money for the DA’s office while at the same time taking money away from other agencies.”

Bennett served as a public defender with Riddle in the 1980s and has expressed his concern with the loss of revenue from court costs due to cases being diverted from court.

Many plea deals help fund Riddle's office by imposing fees on defendants, Bennett said.

“We came to an agreement that he would make some changes in the program, or we would make some changes in our assessment of fines and costs,” Bennett said.

Louisiana Supreme Court records show the number of traffic tickets filed in Avoyelles Parish’s 12th Judicial District Court have been cut almost in half since Riddle took office in 2003 -- from 8,972 tickets in 2003 to 4,540 in 2017. Figures for 2018 were unavailable.

Riddle said the 2003 figure is misleading because it reflects an “accumulation of two years of tickets that had not yet been processed” until after the 2003 election.

Those tickets are used to help pay for public defenders, Clerk of Court offices and other aspects of the justice system.

Riddle downplayed the effect the program has on the rest of the justice system.

‘FIXED TICKETS’

Before diversion, he said, prosecutors simply threw out tickets -- which also resulted in no revenue for the court.

“They used to just fix them and just dismiss them,” Riddle said. “That was the original diversion. DA’s would just dismiss the tickets based upon who they knew.”

Bennett said now in the new system District Attorneys offer ticket recipients in some cases to go to the PTI program.

“Once the money is paid, there are no court proceedings and no money comes into the system,” Bennett added.

Drivers might have their ticket “diverted” if they were going less than 15 miles over the speed limit and if it is their first or second speeding ticket in Riddle's jurisdiction.

They pay fines and fees up to $160 and take a safe driver test or an hour-long online course. In return, Riddle drops the charges.

If a ticket isn’t diverted, the driver would pay those fines and fees to the court and the revenue would be split up among the DA, sheriff, public defender and other agencies.

When a ticket is diverted, Riddle gets to decide where the money goes.

Riddle voluntarily shared $10,350 with the courthouse security fund in 2017.

In 2018, the Sheriff's Office got $6,000.

The public defender’s office, meanwhile, receives a share of the fees collected from people enrolled in Riddle’s misdemeanor and felony diversion programs. That agency received $6,350 out of the $79,917 collected in 2018, according to Riddle’s financial records. That's far less than the $272,919 accrued by the traffic diversion program.

Public defenders tend to get hit especially hard by traffic diversion programs, since the revenue from regular traffic tickets is one of their biggest sources of revenue.

Avoyelles Public Defender Bradley Dauzat and APSO Chief Deputy Steve Martel declined to comment on the program’s impact on their offices.

FUNDING FOR IDB

Riddle said he does not believe public defender offices should be funded through traffic tickets.

“I was in the Legislature and I hated the fact that traffic tickets were helping to fund indigent defenders,” he said. “It should be through misdemeanors; it should be through felonies; and it should be through the Legislature.”

“Our funding system is completely screwy,” State Public Defender Jay Dixon said.

Dixon said Louisiana is the only state that charges a court fee on traffic tickets to pay for indigent defense.

Since 2009, total revenue for public defenders statewide has dropped by a third and continues to fall.

Dixon also disagreed with Riddle's assertion that diversion helps the public by improving safety.

“You don’t learn anything other than you can dodge a ticket by paying money directly to an entity,” he said.

The Louisiana Legislature approved a budget in June that would reduce state appropriations to local district attorney’s offices by 83 percent -- from $31 million in 2018 to $5.4 million in 2019. This would put a further squeeze on local prosecutors’ budgets.

“Here’s the problem,” Dixon said. “There’s not enough money in the judicial system.”

Dixon said it would be hypocritical for him to say he wouldn’t do the same thing if it would benefit his office because “I might.”

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