Magistrates may be overstepping their bounds in not going forward with many charges brought by police officers, the Hamilton County Regular Grand Jury said in a final report.
The Grand Jury winds up reinstating many of those dismissed cases, the report said.
The report says if the magistrate system is to be retained, there should be a magistrate on duty during the day - not just the nights and weekends.
The panel also outlined a number of problems at the County Jail - other than overcrowding. These include security problems and a lack of updated equipment.
The Grand Jury said the jail is antiquated and in need of replacement.
The panel again called for a Juvenile
Detention Center to be built here and said state funding should not have been taken away from Bethel Bible Village and other similar groups.
The Grand Jury said the judicial system needs to be revised, saying it takes too long between arrest and trial.
On the magistrates, the Grand Jury said, "According to testimony we heard from quite a few officers, the magistrates routinely dismiss various charges against defendants and won’t allow the officers to bring the charges. We do not think that should be the duty of the magistrates and were under the impression they were just supposed to set bond on cases. We feel like they are exceeding their authority by dismissing charges.
"After hearing testimony on the cases, we cannot understand why on earth the magistrate dismissed the charges in the first place. If the case reaches us, the Grand Jury usually reinstates those original (dismissed) charges.
"The whole process is very frustrating to the officers and others involved in the cases, and raises even more questions regarding the magistrate program. We hope that someone will be able to address & correct what we see as a major problem."
Here is the full report:
Honorable Rebecca Stern, Judge
Criminal Court, Division II
Hamilton County, Tennessee
Dear Judge Stern,
We members of the Regular Grand Jury for the January – April 2006 term want to take this opportunity to express how much we enjoyed our service and the privilege of this opportunity to serve on the Hamilton County Grand Jury. We urge everyone to serve when given the opportunity - it might come your way only once in a lifetime.
These few months spent serving on the Grand Jury have really been an eye-opening experience for all of us. Our prior experience with crime and the criminal element in general usually came from a quick review of the daily news on television and the newspaper. We would usually read, listen, take a deep breath and go about our daily routines, with little thought to the downstream problems caused by the crimes that are committed on a daily basis. We have been truly shocked to learn of the tremendous amount of local crime, and the horrific consequences to the victims, families and society as a whole from the use of drugs and alcohol, particularly methamphetamine, and their relationship to the high percentage of crimes.
In our opinion, the entire judicial system should be streamlined, from the initial arrest all the way through the prosecution & sentencing. There is too much of a time lapse after the arrest, resulting in a complete abuse of the criminal justice system. Witnesses and victims become disillusioned, disappear or die, resulting in a crime that is often never fully punished.
In addition to the testimony we heard on hundreds of criminal cases this term, most of which dealt with the same defendants over and over, we also visited several Hamilton County penal facilities and offer our observations on those within our Grand Jury charge. We realize that most of these comments have been made many times by past Grand Juries, but we also feel that they continue to merit serious consideration by every concerned citizen and official of Hamilton County.
Obviously, the strategies are not new and have been presented many times. The big problem is finding the funding for these changes. As taxpayers, we believe that the judicial system should attempt to solve the problem within the existing budget framework. The more the taxpayer is forced to give, the more the system seems to demand. When a household or business overspends, the solution is to cut spending and manage within the budget. The same should work for the judicial system and all government agencies.
This report represents the consensus of the members of this panel and not the opinions or accounts of individual members.
HAMILTON COUNTY JAIL
There really isn’t much we can add to the previous statements and recommendations in the past Grand Jury Final Reports. It has all been said many times before and we fully concur with their comments. We were impressed with the management of the Jail and commend the staff for their professionalism and ability to cope with the constant challenges they encounter daily. The present Jail facility is over 30 years old, with an obsolete design that is incompatible with current needs. We agree with the goals set forth by Chief Hart and his staff and hope that funding for these objectives will be available soon. Until such time that a new properly designed Jail is ever seriously considered, we commend the Corrections Division for accomplishing many of their proposed minimal upgrades of this antiquated facility.
We do feel a need to clarify something, however. OVERCROWDING OF THE JAIL IS NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM WITH THIS FACILITY, even though that seems to always be the only focus of reports & discussions. In our opinion, there are several other issues that contribute to the need for a new Jail, and these are as follows:
Security and safety of the Corrections Officers, prisoners and other Jail employees;
Poor initial design and construction of the building create constant problems;
Upkeep and maintenance are much more difficult;
Incredible need for updated security equipment and technological systems;
Proper & secure staffing for this building is very manpower-intensive.
We also agree that, if we have to have the Magistrate program at all, there should also be a Magistrate on duty during the daytime hours, or at least on call when needed. Surely that would help reduce the number of people having to wait in the holding cells until the person comes on duty around 6 p.m.
JUVENILE JUSTICE CENTER
We agree with the critical need for a local Juvenile Correctional Facility for Hamilton County juvenile offenders. The reasons for this are detailed in past Grand Jury reports and won’t be repeated here. In the meantime, we recommend that more funding be made available for additional staff in the Intensive Probation program. This program is the “last chance” in the local Juvenile Court system for many young people, and additional caseworkers are necessary to handle the increase in local juvenile offenders.
Past Grand Juries have commented on our local juvenile “group homes” - those non-secure facilities that house several delinquents who should be in a secure lockup within the State Juvenile Correctional system but are not. Some of those unsupervised young people have been known to cause a lot of trouble, including violence, at various public locations in our community. This surely emphasizes the need for a LOCAL juvenile correctional facility.
To our great dismay, we learned that some highly successful, secure family-oriented group homes have lost nearly all of their State funding as a result of a 2001 lawsuit settlement. Funding from the State of Tennessee was cut off to all congregate care group homes such as Bethel Bible Village. According to local Juvenile officials, these group homes were successful in helping the young people in their care and in helping keep the rest of the community safer. We strongly urge the State to address the problems caused by this elimination of funding for such facilities AND do what is necessary to reinstate the funding and support for all secure multi-children housing facilities.
We also urge more churches and faith-based organizations in our community to work in conjunction with the Juvenile Court to develop programs that address the needs of all local youths, especially those who are already in the Juvenile Court system. We commend those who are already involved with the Court in an effort to help our youth and our community.
GENERAL COMMENTS & RECOMMENDATIONS
We share the same concerns and frustrations discussed in the past Grand Jury Final Reports. Detailed comments can be found in those previous reports. Rather than listing all of them in this report, we wish to say that we concur with their many credible suggestions and feel very strongly that they continue to merit the attention of lawmakers, law enforcement and government officials.
As taxpayers and citizens of Hamilton County, we certainly realize that budgets are stretched tight in all areas of government, and we are realistic enough to know that most of our recommendations, no matter how credible and critical, will not be realized any time soon, if at all. However, we will continue to make the observations and recommendations in order to retain them as a matter of record for the future.
We do have questions for someone about the Magistrate program. Is it within the duties of a Magistrate to drop charges brought by an officer against a defendant? Are the Magistrates allowed to judge which charges are OK and those that are not OK? According to testimony we heard from quite a few officers, the Magistrates routinely dismiss various charges against defendants and won’t allow the officers to bring the charges. We do not think that should be the duty of the Magistrates and were under the impression they were just supposed to set bond on cases. We feel like they are exceeding their authority by dismissing charges. After hearing testimony on the cases, we cannot understand why on earth the Magistrate dismissed the charges in the first place. If the case reaches us, the Grand Jury usually reinstates those original (dismissed) charges. The whole process is very frustrating to the officers and others involved in the cases, and raises even more questions regarding the Magistrate program. We hope that someone will be able to address & correct what we see as a major problem.
We wish to thank the following people for their assistance and support during our term:
Amy Northern, Edna Camp, Gwen Tidwell and the staff of the Criminal Court Clerk’s Office; Jamie Brown and Peggy Hudson of the District Attorney’s Office; Court Liaison Officers SGT Brenda Hafley and SGT Lee Robbs of the Chattanooga Police Dept.; the officers of the Sheriff’s Dept. Civil Process Division; and the Courts Building Security Officers and personnel.
Sheriff’s Deputy Morris Bice, our courteous escort and driver to our facility visits.
Administration and staff members who conducted our tours through the Jail, Silverdale, and the Juvenile Justice Center. We appreciate their time and very thorough, informative facility tours. We also thank the Security staff of the Jail for their fascinating display of some of the contraband confiscated in the Jail, as well as the Kitchen staff of the Jail for the well-prepared lunch.
John Wilson and his online news website Chattanoogan.com for publishing the Grand Jury Final Report in its entirety. As a result, everyone in the community with computer access can read the comments of that term’s sitting Grand Jury.
Law enforcement that does a fantastic job with the tools with which they are given to work. They have a very dangerous and unappreciated task at hand and should be commended for their tireless efforts on behalf of our community.
District Attorney General Bill Cox for his presentation to both Grand Jury panels of the very intense and informative “Meth Is Death” DVD prepared by the State of TN.
To Larry Ellis for taking the official notes for our group this term – and Charlie Vaughn for filling in when Larry was absent one week.
To Tommy Lee for his major contribution to our Final Report.
Our hats are off to Marsha Crabtree, Foreman, and Assistant D.A.’s John Lee, Rodney Strong and Bill West. They all deserve to be commended for their dedication and tireless efforts in attempting to get to the bottom of a “bottomless pit”.
For the Hamilton Co. Regular Grand Jury,
Marsha Crabtree, Foreman