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County still needs to look at pre-trial releases

If you think the majority of Washington County jail inmates are serving a sentence for a crime they committed, you'd be surprised. The majority are waiting for their cases to be resolved.

Many, if not most, of those cases involve minor offenses or probation violations. This leads to frustrating and wasteful situations. Every criminal defense attorney in Washington County has a story.

There was the man held for two weeks, over Christmas break, while waiting for a hearing on whether he violated his restraining order by delivering Christmas presents to his ex-fiancé and her children. Turns out the packages were delivered by Sunday School children. The case was dismissed.

There was the woman who had no criminal history and had never been arrested before, but when she called 9-1-1 because she felt threatened with domestic violence, she ended up being the one arrested. She missed Christmas with her four children because she was in jail. It was a week before she was appointed an attorney and released. A jury acquitted her.

There was the disorganized woman who made a Herculean and successful effort to get to court at 9 a.m. for her trial, just like it said on her paperwork. Her case, however, had been called at 8:50 a.m., so when she arrived promptly at 9 a.m. she was arrested and sent to jail for missing her trial. After a week in jail and several failed attempts to get a judge to release her, she gave up her right to a trial and pleaded guilty just to get out of jail.

About a year ago, I wrote a guest column calling for a pretrial services program that would bring Washington County into compliance with the law and save taxpayers money by creating alternatives to pretrial incarceration for people like Jeremy Murphy, who was jailed for three weeks while awaiting trial for having the wrong ticket while riding the MAX train. Mr. Murphy's case was eventually dismissed. 

Sheriff Rob Gordon (now retired) and District Attorney Bob Hermann wrote a column in response, stating: 'A county consultant concluded that a release program would cost an additional $1.5 million annually. Yet it would not improve our current system that properly uses jail deputies to make initial release decisions.'

The first sentence of that statement mentions only the costs, and fails to acknowledge the overall savings of such a program. The second sentence is misleading because it is Gordon and Hermann's opinion - not (as implied) the consultant's.

The consultant, in fact, disagrees with them.

The county consultant cited by Hermann and Gordon is David Bennett, a well-regarded expert who has conducted numerous studies of criminal justice systems around the country, and has published the Jail Capacity Planning Guide for the U.S. Department of Justice. 

In the report cited by Gordon and Hermann, which was completed in 2007 after a multi-year study of the Washington County criminal justice system, Bennett names as one of his top four recommendations for Washington County the 'development of a comprehensive pretrial services program.'  

To put it bluntly, Bennett says, 'a comprehensive pretrial services program is an indispensable component of a criminal justice system whose benefits are realized in community safety, system integrity, and reduced system costs.'  

Bennett does not agree with Hermann and Gordon that jail deputies should be responsible for making 'initial release decisions,' and Bennett asserts that initial costs of a pre-trial services program are more than made up for in systemwide savings.

The point of the inmate stories above, and countless others like them, is not that these people are perfect. They are not. Some have previously missed court hearings, have not been in good contact with their attorneys and have had warrants out for their arrest.

Some have prior convictions; some are mentally ill. But the fact is that many people held in the Washington County Jail - even some with no previous record - plead guilty solely so they can go back to their family, their job, their life. They do this instead of waiting weeks or months in jail for a trial.

Fairness, good judgment and due process require us to more carefully consider each individual's circumstance and take more seriously the notion of innocent until proven guilty. A full-service, pretrial release program (which is indispensable, according to Bennett) would provide meaningful options to judges looking for reasonable (and more affordable) alternatives to pretrial incarceration.

Statewide there is an open discussion that questions the wisdom of spending ever-more tax dollars on incarceration, when more affordable alternatives are proving more effective in reducing crime rates and keeping communities safe.

In Washington County, the new sheriff has demonstrated an openness to new ideas. Perhaps he will join a number of people - not just defense attorneys - who believe it is time to take a serious look at the benefits of a full-service pretrial supervision program.

Dean Smith is a lawyer who works

for Metropolitan Public Defender in

Washington County.




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