Even if the court is able to actually get defendants inside the courtroom to be held accountable for their actions they know there is really nothing the court can do to them because of an overcrowded Crawford County Detention Center, according to District Court Judge Steven Peer.
“I have actually had defendants stand in front of me and tell me to my face I can’t put them in jail because there is no room,” Peer said. “These people have figured out they can act however they want without consequences. Even if they are arrested, they know they will be back out on the street before the arresting officer has even finished the paperwork.”
Too often, he said these people commit other, sometimes more serious, crimes while they are at large.
“I have heard people complain about a ‘revolving door’ justice system,” Peer said. “This is an example of one created by our inadequate jail. Don’t be concerned that I am disclosing any secrets here. These facts are already well known throughout the criminal community and they take advantage at every opportunity.”
Peer said he has heard it stated there is really no need to put misdemeanor defendants in jail, because these are, after all, just misdemeanor offenses.
“However, misdemeanor offenses can involve purposely inflicting physical injury, intentionally destroying personal property, theft of goods and services, and other offenses that endanger persons and property,” he said.
Some misdemeanor offenses have mandatory jail time required by statute.
“So if you put no value in physical safety or the right to private property, then I guess you don’t need to be interested in having a meaningful deterrent or punishment for those types of crimes,” Peer said. “But the situation is more serious than just not having a place for misdemeanor offenders.”
Recently, Peer said the the sheriff’s department had to release prisoners who had actually been convicted of felonies but could not be held in the jail due to overcrowding. The chances are good that at least some of them will commit other felonies while at large, he said.
“I have also heard it said that non-violent offenses should not be subject to jail,” Peer said. “In large part I agree, except that too often the same person will repeatedly ignore or violate the same law. What should you do with someone who has been convicted of driving without insurance nine times; or someone convicted of driving on a suspended license seven times; or someone convicted of criminal trespass five times; or someone convicted of huffing paint 11 times; or someone who has failed to appear in court eight straight times; or someone on their third contempt of court for not paying restitution?”
These are actual cases in the District Court.
“There comes a point where a mere fine is not sufficient,” he said. “Besides, they won’t pay it anyway without a real threat of incarceration.”
Peer said he has been told that alternative sentencing will help alleviate the problem so that there will be no need for more jail space.
“I use alternative sentencing every day,” he said. “In lieu of jail, I routinely order defendants to pay restitution to victims; to have no contact with victims; to attend domestic abuse intervention programs; to take anti-theft classes; to complete alcohol and drug rehab programs; to do community service; to wear ankle monitors; and more.”
However, by definition, he said an alternative sentence is an alternative to something else and that something else is jail. The problem occurs when the defendant repeatedly refuses or fails to comply with the alternatives given them, he said.
“So what do you do when the defendant cuts off their ankle monitor; or repeatedly fails to pay restitution; or repeatedly fails to do any of the other things they agreed to do in order to avoid jail?” Peer asked. “For these alternative sentences to be effective they must be enforceable. In those circumstances a judge must have the ability to impose a jail sentence or else the court is entirely powerless.”
Peer said it is not the goal of a judge to “fill the jail.” To do so would be counterproductive, he said.
“If a jail is full and the threat of incarceration is gone, then a judge is powerless to enforce the law or the orders of the court,” Peer said. “I would much rather have the jail two-thirds full so a person considering committing an offense or disregarding a court order knows there is actually room for them if they fail to comply.”
Peer said he knows the financial issue of a new tax is an important consideration. It is also financially foolish to continue to allow our present taxes to be used so inefficiently, he said.
“But a greater issue is public safety,” Peer said. “That is not just the responsibility of the law enforcement community and the courts, but is the responsibility of each citizen. A new jail is a necessity so that we have an effective tool for protecting our citizens from physical injury or financial loss. The real possibility of jail must be a potential and non-voluntary consequence of criminal and contemptuous behavior.”