Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ignoring the "Go Directly To Jail" Card

We've all heard by now of the lack of space in the jails in Hamilton County. Most of you have heard that the sheriff has initiated a sentence deferral program, whereby certain offenders are told to come back at a later day to serve a sentence of incarceration. Today's Enquirer reveals something that was fairly predictable: defendants aren't necessarily reporting as ordered. And according to the Enquirer, there's nothing that can be done to penalize them for remaining at large.

The situation is of some concern (but probably not as alarming as the Enquirer makes it out to be) to me. Yes, I'm a defense attorney and I'm never happy when someone is sentenced to jail--every jail sentence represents, to me, some form of societal failure or detriment. But I'm also a member of this community and a realist: sometimes, jail is the last, best option for punishment and deterrence. I think there are a couple things that could be done to encourage people to show up to serve a deferred sentence. But before I offer my suggestions, let's clear up some potential misconceptions about the Hamilton County criminal justice system.

First, it's extremely difficult to be sentenced to incarceration for a misdemeanor offense in this county. It happens in one of two situations: either the offense is particular violent (an assault or domestic violence conviction that goes beyond the "garden variety" version of those offenses), or the defendant is a recidivist. In the latter circumstance, sometimes we're talking about someone who was placed on probation and is now on a second or third probation violation, or someone who has multiple, close-in-time convictions similar to the one for which s/he is now being sentenced.

Second, the Enquirer reports deferral is only for "non-violent" offenders. If this is true today, it has not always been true over the past three months. Also, space is especially tight for female offenders. (My understanding is that this is because when Queensgate closed, the first floor at 1617 Reading Road was converted to a men's jail, decreasing the number of beds for women system-wide.)

Third, right now, judges don't always know whose sentence will be deferred and who will go in immediately. After the court imposes sentence, the defendant is taken from the courtroom by the criminal bailiff to the holding cell on the sixth floor of the courthouse, where s/he is thoroughly patted down. From there, s/he is taken across the street (via a connecting bridge) to the Justice Center, where s/he is processed. S/he is then informed if his or her sentence is being deferred.

So how do we get convicted offenders to show up to serve their jail sentences? There is no real "carrot" involved here; instead, the justice system has to find a "stick." I think there are four ways judges and prosecutors can influence defendants' behavior post-sentencing but pre-incarceration:

1. Charging escape. I haven't researched the caselaw on this, but my quick reading of Ohio Revised Code 2921.34 make me believe people who miss their deferral date could be charged with escape. This is because that crime applies to one who "purposely fail[s] to return to detention . . . following temporary leave granted for a specific purpose or limited period." If the problem is that the "temporary leave" is granted by the sheriff rather than the court, then the court could, upon request of the sheriff, order the temporary leave (in other words, the court "furloughs" the defendant). Of course, in this scenario, escape is a misdemeanor offense (meaning that the defendant would serve his time in the county jail rather than prison), so this could further exacerbate the space shortage, but the possibility of an additional six-month sentence is strong incentive to show up as ordered by the sheriff.

2. Charging contempt. As part of sentences of incarceration, judges could begin ordering defendants to comply with all sheriff-imposed reporting requirements (e.g., calling or coming in on the deferred sentence date). If the defendant fails to do this, the court could then impose an additional sentence for contempt. Again, this requires more utilization of bed space to initiate and more resources (this would be "indirect" contempt, so a hearing would be required). But the hope is that the mere possibility of additional incarceration would deter individuals from skipping out on their sentences.

3. Detail eligibility. If you've been to the Justice Center or the courthouse, you've no doubt seen inmates wandering about, seemingly unsupervised, collecting trash, mopping floors, and performing other custodial functions. These men are on "work details," for which they typically get two or three days of credit for every one day of detail work. (You generally hear this called "2-for-1" or "3-for-1.") This means someone who is sentenced to six months in jail can get out in as little as six months, or even less. Judges can make defendants ineligible for details, but rarely do so. The sheriff should make any individual who fails to report as ordered ineligible for work details that decrease the amount of time to be served. (I'd suggest the same thing for treatment programs that make mitigation by a judge likely, but (a) we should never make someone ineligible for treatment, and (b) last I knew, sentences were not being deferred for individuals who were serving their time in programs like men's extended treatment.)

4. Conditional sentences. This requires the judge and the sheriff to work together, so a judge will know, at the time of sentencing, whether a defendant's sentence will be deferred by the sheriff. If the sentence is to be deferred, the judge could announce a conditional sentence. For instance, if the charge is a first-degree misdemeanor (carrying a possible 180 days in jail) and the court wants to impose a 90-day sentence, if the sentence is to be deferred then the court could announce its intent to impose 90 days and instruct the defendant to report back to the courtroom for actual sentencing and surrender at the end of the deferral. The court would instruct the defendant that if s/he fails to appear for sentence, the court will impose the maximum 180-day sentence instead of the 90 promised.

No one would describe me as a "law-and-order" guy. But failing to obey a court order--like a sentence--should have consequences. My suggestions assume, of course, that judges are using incarceration only where appropriate: for particularly brutal crimes or as the last sentencing option, only when a defendant has repeatedly demonstrated, over time, non-amenability to treatment or other, more rehabilitative opportunities.

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