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  • Last modified 280 days ago (March 2, 2022)

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It’s criminal
how we enforce the law

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times and you have our criminal justice system — not just in Marion County but elsewhere, as well.

As any reader of jail bookings and criminal cases on our Docket page knows, the names rarely change, and it most certainly isn’t to protect the innocent.

If you eight times fail to appear in court, it’s no problem. We’ll let you out so you can fail to appear six more times.

Fail to appear 12 times? No problem! We’ll let you fail to appear twice more — and then let you out again on a bond that probably costs you no more than $400.

Ordered not to carry a gun? Not a worry! We’ll release you out not once but twice after you’re caught allegedly doing exactly what you were told not to because of earlier bad behavior.

Violate your probation — your one chance to prove you can get back on the straight and narrow — and instead of locking you away, we’ll let your bail bondsman give you a get-out-of-jail card, though not necessarily for free.

Who’s responsible for our jails and courtrooms having revolving doors instead of turnstiles? Alas, we all are.

Years of attempts to get tough on crime have created a system in which common sense has little to do with such things as sentencing and setting of bonds.

In most areas of government, officials are expected to follow the law to the letter. They should in the legal system, too. But laws have to allow judges to — well — judge rather than be hamstrung by such things as sentencing grids.

Grids have become little more than bingo cards for prosecutors and defenders to play and prey upon. The main difference is that, in this game, the idea is to avoid lining up too many convictions in so many boxes that a sentence might become a serious deterrent.

To save time and money, prosecutors are allowed to combine multiple cases, but when they do, convictions for multiple offenses may count only once in the game of sentencing-grid bingo.

That and a desire to make things easier to prosecute is a key reason so many charges are dismissed in plea bargaining. They might not have counted anyway in checking off enough boxes to make convictions add up to a meaningful sentence.

Judges need to have greater discretion to judge the pattern of behavior of criminals convicted in their courts. Society’s attempts to circumvent overly lenient judges have forced other judges to be even more lenient than common sense would dictate.

We need a system in which overly lenient judges are fired, not “fixed” by legislation that ends up tying all judges’ hands.

We also need a system in which the full amount of bail automatically is forfeited without fail every time a defendant fails to show up for a hearing.

That alone would go a long way toward turning revolving doors into turnstiles by making bail bondsmen less likely to hand out frequent flier awards that let suspects pay just a tiny fraction of their bail amount to get out again and again.

Being a bail bondsman is like having a license to print money. You charge a fee for guaranteeing bail yet rarely have to make good on your guarantee. It actually increases your profits by ensuring that your customers have to bail out multiple times and pay you multiple fees.

Would quick fixes to these problems solve everything? Absolutely not.

In his classic book, “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote makes a convincing case that some criminals are so irredeemable they deserve to be excised from society.

We’re not convinced we were placed on this earth to make judgments like that, nor do we think that locking some people up and throwing away the key answers anything, particularly for those whose problems are based in drug addiction that can — with great difficulty — be cured. The situation is even worse with career criminals, whose personalities are even harder to cure.

But we do think now is the time for thoughtful citizens, inside and outside the judicial system, to begin to recognize that the system is broken and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, rather than patched over yet again with provisions that supposedly get tough on crime but actually make it tougher to provide meaningful deterrence for lawbreakers.

What the criminal justice system needs is ideas — not ideas shared behind bars on how criminals can commit even more crimes more efficiently but ideas from both experts and average citizens on imaginative ways to stop them.

Instead of overcrowding jails with inmates on weekend and work-release sentences, perhaps we need to flip the equation. Certain convicts might have to provide their own three “hots” and a cot instead of being a housing burden for the county. As an alternative, they could be ordered to stay at home while providing some necessary public service — like working eight hours a day, five days a week separating trash into profitable piles of different types of recyclable materials.

It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s an idea. And unless we want to watch the justice system continue to spiral into one that fails to fight crime, we need all the ideas we can get.

What are your ideas? The first step in solving a problem is to admit that it exists.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified March 2, 2022

 

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