There are people who commit crimes who deserve incarceration and require constant supervision separate from the community, but others would benefit from some form of alternative sentencing.
One of the repeated criticisms 10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes hears is there is so much plea-bargaining in the criminal justice system that too many criminals receive probation without paying restitution. Another criticism is the warehousing of inmates who sit around doing nothing other than waiting to get of jail and then often return to their old lifestyles and commit the same crimes.
“There is a lot of criticism of plea bargaining,” Hughes said in a recent interview. “The majority of cases are resolved other than by a jury trial. Jury trials get the attention, but day in and day out, the reality of the criminal justice system is that a large majority of cases in general sessions court, juvenile court and criminal court are resolved by some kind of plea.”
The public defender’s office closed 8,768 cases in fiscal year 2012 between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012. That same year, 54.3 percent of all criminal cases ended in a guilty plea as charged, as opposed to only 4.62 percent convicted after trial.
The majority of offenders arrive in the courtroom with serious, underlying social and economic problems.
“How do you break that cycle?” he asked. “My idea is not a liberal idea. I think it is a conservative idea. What can we do to save money, to get better results and help people?”
He tells every one of his clients that they must take responsibility if they want to get better; if they want to stay out of jail; if they want to get off probation, they have to work hard.
“Everything I’m talking about starts with the offender. I want them to have a chance if they are eligible to do these programs but no matter how much money you spend, no matter how well intentioned the lawyers and judges are, it comes down to that individual,” Hughes said.
People who plead guilty are often sentenced to probation, community service program or special treatment court, such as adult drug court presided over by Judge Carroll Ross and juvenile drug court conducted by Magistrate Kirk Benson on behalf of General Sessions Judge Daniel Swafford. Both men volunteer their time to supervise their respective courts.
“I am a big proponent of these special treatment courts,” he said. “I believe it is important for judges to have alternatives.”
Unfortunately, there is room for only 30 offenders at a time in the four-county judicial district that covers Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties.
“That’s the only way some of them can make it,” Hughes said.
Prior conviction of crimes against another person disqualifies offenders from drug court and that, in Hughes’ opinion, is a weakness in the 10th Judicial District.
“I wish we had a residential treatment center somewhere close. One of the weaknesses of the drug court is that somebody with a long history of substance abuse could benefit from residential treatment before beginning the drug court program.”
Right now, an overcrowded jail is used to detox people, he said. In January, there were 460 inmates in the Bradley County Jail, which is certified to incarcerate 408. Of the 460 inmates, 150 were Department of Corrections inmates serving prison sentences.
“There are programs throughout the state, but we don’t have, in my opinion, a real good long-term residential program in our district,” Hughes said.
Because of the meth epidemic in the 10th Judicial District, some nonviolent offenders who qualify for community service are sent to a residential drug court program in Davidson County. The program lasts from 18 to 24 months.
“I wish we could take money from the Tennessee Department of Corrections to create regional residential drug court programs. I wish we had in our region, the same type of program as Davidson County that would be funded through the Department of Corrections.”
“I attempted to introduce legislation that would give persons in treatment courts like our drug court credit in jail for time on the program if that person is revoked on probation and sent to prison, he said. “Reward the person for time in compliance with drug court. This is granted to persons in the Davidson County Drug Court program,” Hughes said. “I met strong opposition but it is a good idea and will try again next legislative session. Because of the cost of incarceration and the failure of so many on traditional probation, we need to be willing to try new ideas in criminal justice.”
The weakness of the local program is people who really want to change do not have enough support.
“It’s very difficult to change their living environment. They’re around people using drugs all the time,” he said. “Drug courts work well on a local basis if a person has a drug-free environment to go to and they have some support.
“It is cheaper to treat them in a court-supervised treatment program. You have that accountability when that person is facing a judge every week monitoring their progress or lack of progress. There is no question in my mind that drug court has helped offenders in the program. If not for the program, they would not have been successful. They would have been in prison.”
Hughes is an advocate of DUI court for someone with two to four DUIs who has never been in an accident that involved death or serious bodily injury to another person.
“DUIs are prevalent in our district. It’s a concern,” he said. “The model for a DUI court is the same as drug court. It is supervised treatment.
A workhouse is an alternative to incarceration for misdemeanor offenses, such as failure to pay child support. Each day, the offender would be able to leave the workhouse to go to work. A minimum of $15 a day would be deducted from their wages to help pay for their incarceration.
“Not only are these people paying back part of their incarceration costs to the county, but they are eligible for 2-for-1, which means they can build their sentence quicker. It’s an incentive,” Hughes said.
The concern is who would give a job to an unemployed inmate.
“That’s a legitimate concern because a lot of them are going to be in custody and there is not a job for them to go back to,” Hughes said. “If we have a workhouse, it’s going to be important to have employers in place who will agree to giving them a job.”
Communities as a whole benefit with offenders and their family benefits with employment, Hughes said.
“I’ve always taken an interest in juvenile court because it’s very important to try to help children as soon as possible and keep them out of the adult system. The goal is always for them not to be in the justice system,” he said. “Juvenile court has a lot of programs. They’ve got a lot of dimensions because obviously, the goal and purpose of juvenile court is to rehabilitate children. I think we need to have that same focus in adult court, too.”
“A lot of people would do well, but there obviously has to be supervision,” he said. “But, we’re talking about a certain type of offender. We’re talking about nonviolent offenders.”
Many people in the criminal justice system are addicted to alcohol, drugs or both. Methamphetamine is still a serious problem and prescription drug abuse is just as serious if not worse, he said.
There are state funds available for treatment through probation, but there are people who need more intensive supervision than probation provides and that is the advantage of the drug court, he said.
“Politics can be what I call a stalemate machine where the status quo is protected, or politics can be used to make necessary change needed in the criminal justice system. I believe the services provided by the public defender’s office can be made cheaper to the taxpayer, and the consequences of entering the criminal justice system can be delivered cheaper and more effectively and protect the public just as well,” he concluded.