Members of the Regular Hamilton County Grand Jury said in a final report on Wednesday that stronger punishment is needed in Criminal Court.
The report from the panel headed by Marsha Crabtree said cases that should be handled in General Sessions Court often wind up going on to the Grand Jury and then to Criminal Court.
The report says, "We agree with past Grand Juries that until those who can settle their cases in the lower Courts are punished more severely in Criminal Court than they might possibly be in General Sessions Court, they will continue to use the Grand Jury and entire Criminal Court process as a means to delay adjudication of - or gain a more favorable settlement of - their cases."
The Regular Grand Jury said many multiple offenders are allowed to plea bargain in Criminal Court.
The report says, "Once their cases are in Criminal Court, and because of their past and present lengthy criminal history, we do not feel that they should even be eligible to plead to lesser charges. It is no wonder that 'punishment' is no deterrent to criminal behavior."
The report was given to Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern. Other judges in Criminal Court are Barry Steelman and Don Poole.
Here is the full report:
Dear Judge Stern,
As members of the Regular Grand Jury for the January ¡V April 2007 term, we are proud we fulfilled our civic responsibility by serving in this capacity. It has been a privilege to serve our community while also gaining an invaluable education. We urge all citizens to serve on the Grand Jury when the given the opportunity because it is certainly a very rewarding and enlightening experience, as well as a valuable service to the community.
We leave our Grand Jury service with much more appreciation for members of our local law enforcement and the overwhelming dangers and challenges they face each and every day. We can more fully appreciate their frustration now that we have heard about so many of the same offenders week after week.
We are amazed at how accustomed most of the criminals are to the judicial and corrections systems. Obviously, their frequent arrests and incarceration, however brief it usually is, do not seem to change their behavior one bit. We agree with past Grand Juries that until those who can settle their cases in the lower Courts are punished more severely in Criminal Court than they might possibly be in General Sessions Court, they will continue to use the Grand Jury and entire Criminal Court process as a means to delay adjudication of - or gain a more favorable settlement of - their cases.
We are also disturbed to learn that multiple offenders with currently pending cases in Criminal Court are allowed a plea bargain on some of those cases. Once their cases are in Criminal Court, and because of their past and present lengthy criminal history, we do not feel that they should even be eligible to plead to lesser charges. It is no wonder that ¡§punishment¡¨ is no deterrent to criminal behavior.
We were astonished to learn that nearly every criminal case we heard testimony on was related to drugs and/or alcohol in some way, directly or indirectly. It did not take but a few hours on our first day to realize that nearly every defendant on our Grand Jury docket was a multiple offender, constantly picking up new charges while out on bond for other cases. We definitely have a problem with repeat offenders being granted another bond in new cases, instead of being automatically & quickly revoked on their prior bond ¡V with no new bond set after their initial qrrest.
In addition to the hundreds of criminal cases we heard this term, many of which dealt with the same defendants over and over, we also visited several Hamilton County penal facilities. We offer our observations on those within our charge in this final report to the Court. We have read previous Grand Jury reports and fully realize that most of these concerns have been repeated many times over the years, but we also feel that they continue to merit serious consideration by all concerned citizens and local officials. This report represents the consensus of the members of this Grand Jury and are not the opinions or accounts of individual members.
Our tour of Silverdale was very thorough and informative. We believe that C.C.A is managing the facility well enough and should be commended for having such a clean facility. However, we feel that the inmates should have a better routine and daily schedule. With the restrictions on which prisoners are eligible to work, it appeared that the majority of the population was not working. We saw too many inmates lying in bed, many sleeping, with no motivation to apply themselves to any productive endeavor. We believe that the treatment of prisoners at Silverdale is respectful and fair. However, we think that to deter the repeat offenders we hear about during every session, our legislators should make the laws of incarceration ¡§not quite so comfortable.¡¨
We hope that Hamilton County will move ahead as quickly as possible to finalize preparation of the additional 128-bed unit. We commend the decision made a few years ago to prepare the area in advance, as much as possible, in anticipation of a need for the additional beds. This will surely make for a more expeditious completion of the project. We are eager to hear about the progress made at this facility over the next year or two, as their proposed growth and improvements are realized.
We thank and commend the staff, officers, and countless volunteers at C.C.A. We encourage more inmates to take advantage of the many helpful programs available at the facility. As a matter of fact, we wish the facility could require them to attend the various self-help classes but were told that is not allowed by law.
Although our local C.C.A. facility is not involved in the recent news article regarding recruitment of California prisoners to a C.C.A. facility in West Tennessee (Times-Free Press of 3/3/07), we cannot help but wonder just what that is about? Doesn¡¦t the Tennessee prison system need additional beds? We have never heard otherwise. If C.C.A. has extra beds to offer, why isn¡¦t the state of Tennessee, including Hamilton County, being ¡§recruited¡¨ for placement of prisoners there? Utilization of those spaces would certainly help relieve local facilities of their overcrowded conditions. We are interested in learning why prisoners are being transferred to Tennessee from other states while our prison system suffers from such overcrowding. Maybe we are missing something - is there a logical explanation?
We believe in the effectiveness of this overall program as long as it is used correctly. We do not feel that it is suitable for repeat or violent offenders ¡V it should be for first-time, non-violent offenders only. For others, it is not a sufficient form of punishment. Anyone who ever violates the rules at any level of this program should never be allowed future placement. The privilege of this form of sentencing appears effective for those defendants who are willing to obey the rules and apply themselves in order to make a better life for themselves.
We agree with past Grand Juries that those who break the rules of the program by violating their restricted-movement regulations should be charged with escape in addition to theft of the equipment. They should not be admitted back into this alternative sentencing program in future criminal cases.
We thank the employees of this program and commend them for their efforts.
GENERAL COMMENTS & RECOMMENDATIONS
We share the same concerns and frustrations listed in past Grand Jury reports and concur with nearly all of them. The details of those very credible comments are found in the past reports over the years and will not be repeated here. We do hope that our lawmakers & other elected officials, along with law enforcement, read these reports and realize that so many of the same observations by the Grand Juries have been presented for many years for good reason - we feel that the issues are very significant and should be remembered by all concerned citizens and officials. Very few problems arise that are truly ¡§new¡¨ - most have been featured over the years in the Grand Jury reports.
In addition to those previous concerns, we offer these additional comments:
(1) Too many of the cases we heard involved victims who inadvertently allowed themselves to be victims by failing to be extremely cautious and prepared. As a warning to our fellow citizens, and based on some of the valuable information we learned during our term, we want to stress to them the need to always be aware of your surroundings and never put yourself in a situation where you might be the target of a criminal. Some logical and obvious reminders are: lock your house; lock your vehicle; don¡¦t leave your unoccupied vehicle running for even a short amount of time; keep valuables out of sight in your vehicle; don¡¦t leave your keys in the vehicle. Service on the Grand Jury has taught us many important lessons - you would be amazed at how many victims did not do many of these simple things.
(2) We favor stronger and longer sentences for the many career criminals, with far fewer plea agreements and sentence reductions agreed to in Criminal Court.
(3) DUI cases overwhelm many sessions of the Grand Jury each week. It seems completely ludicrous to us that a jury trial is necessary in cases where the chemical or breath test results are conclusive and the evidence is overwhelming. We feel that further abuse of the system is the fact that so many misdemeanor DUI defendants (1st thru 3rd offenses) do not settle their cases in the lower courts and insist on going to Criminal Court instead. We realize that they have the right to do that. On the other hand, we feel that those offenders should receive the most serious punishment allowed in Criminal Court.
(4) We support the efforts of the Tennessee Public Safety Coalition to get proposed legislation enacted for longer and stiffer sentences for gun and gang crimes. We also agree with the critical need for hiring additional prosecutors.
(5) We strongly recommend that Hamilton County address the urgent need to upgrade the Jail. We concur with everything that has been stated in past Grand Jury reports and agree completely that we need a new Jail.
(6) We urgently need a Hamilton County Juvenile Correctional Facility. Detailed comments on this issue are also in all of the past reports and we agree with all of them. We were amazed at the large number of juvenile defendants, transferred to adult Criminal Court because of their very serious crimes, who appeared frequently on our weekly Grand Jury dockets. Like many others, we believe that a local juvenile correctional facility might be able to reach the younger offenders early enough to provide the rehabilitative treatment desired in the Juvenile Corrections system.
(7) Comments on gang activities in our community have been included in many past Grand Jury reports over the years. We wonder if the current surge of violent gang activity might have been avoided if we had built a local juvenile correctional facility many years ago when it was first proposed?
(8) It would be very enlightening and beneficial for all members of the Hamilton County Commission if they toured the entire Jail, Silverdale and Juvenile Justice Center on a regular basis, just as the Grand Jury does. They cannot possibly appreciate or truly understand the situations or critical needs of the facilities without ever going through them. Commissioners are welcome to join the Grand Jury on their next facility visits.
(9) We seriously think that Grand Jurors deserve more equitable payment for their months of service to our community. $13 per day is about enough to cover the cost of lunch downtown. We also feel very strongly that the County should pay for our lunch when we are out on our facility visits ¡V 2 Grand Jury panels 3 times a year. They pay for the lunch of people serving on regular trial juries, so why not us? It is bad enough that we have to pay for our own coffee and supplies during our Grand Jury term. The pay for Grand Jury service should be increased AND lunch for Grand Jurors during the required facility visits should be paid for by Hamilton County. We do appreciate it very much that our parking is paid for by the County.
We thank the following people for their assistance and support during our term:
„h 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.
„h Sheriff¡¦s Deputy Mike Jones who assisted with the daily Grand Jury witness list.
„h Sheriff¡¦s Deputy David Newman, our driver-escort to the facility tours.
„h Administration and staff members who conducted our tours through CCA Silverdale, Juvenile Justice Center, Community Corrections, and the Jail. We appreciate their time and very informative facility tours.
„h Law enforcement for their tireless and dangerous efforts on behalf of all of us. To those officers injured on duty, we wish you a successful recovery. To the many officers who have been, are now, or will soon be deployed in the U.S. military, we salute and thank you for your service to our country.
„h John Wilson and his online news website Chattanoogan.com for publishing the Grand Jury Final Reports in their entirety. We appreciate that very much.
„h Carolyn Orr for taking the official notes for our group this term. We certainly recommend that the member of the Grand Jury who handles that required, important, very busy position receive more money each week.
„h Assistant D.A.¡¦s Bill West, Rex Sparks and Dave Denny, and Foreman Marsha Crabtree, for their guidance, assistance and explanations during our sessions this term.
Respectfully submitted by the members of the
HAMILTON COUNTY REGULAR GRAND JURY,