Concurrent Grand Jury Recommends Finding Solution To End Revolving Door Of Criminals

  • Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Concurrent Grand Jury was sworn in on Jan. 8 and met between Jan. 9 and April 16 every other Monday and Tuesday, with no hearings on Feb. 19 (Presidents Day). The CGJ also toured the Hamilton County Jail and Detention Center and the Hamilton County Juvenile Court on Jan. 29.

Hamilton County has two grand juries who share the same duties and responsibilities on alternate weeks – basically, to hear evidence from law enforcement officers and determine if the person arrested or being investigated for a crime should be formally charged with that crime. This report is only from the Concurrent Grand Jury- the Regular Grand Jury has its separate report.

The CGJ was a mixed group in terms of professional and life experience, specific expertise, beliefs and lifestyle, ideologies, and age (ranging from 21-73). There were 13 regular grand jurors, with six alternates, led by foreman Rosemarie Hill. We were an engaged group who listened and questioned the testifying officers, sought legal clarification from the district attorney when needed, and endeavored to consider as much information as needed to make crucial and independent decisions. With every case, we considered the facts presented to us, and the impact on the victims, the accused, and the public before rendering our decisions. Some evidence and facts were vigorously discussed, but all decisions to indict were unanimous. 

We heard 241 cases which contained 601 separate charges, on which we returned 599 true bills and two no bills. We considered 61 direct presentments of case facts that contained 237 separate charges, all of which were true billed. 

When a case is presented to the CGJ, the officers have usually spent many hours on arrests, follow-up fact and evidence investigations, paperwork, and reports to the District Attorney’s office and the courts as necessary. The crimes and charges that are then brought to the CGJ are generally well prepared and not frivolous. If there are minor or duplicative charges against an accused, those are often culled out before the cases are brought to us. After the evidence is explained to the CGJ and we have questioned the presenting officers, we consider and discuss the cases, and vote on whether to indict or not.  

Case Presentations and Issues; Information Provided by Law Enforcement
The facts of each case were presented by law enforcement officers. These officers were from both state and surrounding jurisdictions, including Hamilton County, Chattanooga, East Ridge, Collegedale, Red Bank, Soddy Daisy, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, as well as corrections officers from the prisons. 

We heard details of many different crimes, including first-degree premeditated murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, rape, child rape, child abuse, aggravated assault, theft of all sorts, breaking and entering, domestic assault, fraud, false reports to police, identity theft, and many variations of unlawful drug manufacture and sales (some resulting in death or serious injuries, some with children involved or present), driving under the influence, and neighborhood and random shootings. 

A fact of note and concern to the CGJ is that we heard cases with many of the same defendants who had multiple cases. The logical conclusion is that defendants are learning (or have learned) how to “work the system” by using a “revolving door” strategy. They commit crimes, are arrested, and are then released into the community, where many go on to commit more crimes. Some are released on bond and others plead or are found guilty but serve little or no time incarcerated. 

We see no easy way out of this cycle – not everyone should be incarcerated and not everyone who should be is; there simply are not adequate resources of either money or personnel. Judges are often maligned for “letting him/her out to commit more crimes.” But judges must follow the law and guidelines in setting bonds or ordering jail time, and although they have some discretion based on the facts, they are also aware of the limited jail space and other resources needed to house the many defendants who cross the law enforcement threshold. 

The CGJ also recognizes the many aspects of dealing with those who break the law – deterrence, retribution, restitution, and rehabilitation. What works and what doesn’t? We recommend an ongoing deep dive into our law enforcement agencies (we assume such is already happening on many levels of our government) to ascertain how best to protect the public and the many victims of crime, while at the same time protecting the constitutional rights of those accused of these crimes. 

The cases we heard mostly occurred within the last 6-18 months, although there were some older cases that usually resulted from various system backlogs, or the death or disappearance of the accused, victims or witnesses. There were not too many of these older ones, and we believe that the backlog created by COVID and changing administrations is being whittled down by the current DA’s office and law enforcement. 

District Attorney Coty Wamp explained much about our criminal legal system and the burdens of proof to the CGJ at the beginning and end of our term. Although she or one of her assistant DAs are always there for a case presentation, most often ADA Tom Landis assists in cases presented to the CGJ. The DAs with us at the hearings answer our legal and process questions, but they do not present evidence, and they are not present when we vote to true bill or no bill a case or a charge. In fact, no persons other than the grand jurors and the foreman are present for consideration, discussions, and voting on each case. 

The staff that handles the order and presentation of witnesses to the CGJ does an amazing job of coordinating the many officer schedules and contingencies needed to bring cases to us. We are seldom aware of all the scheduling challenges that the testifying officers and the liaison staff face. Don Klasing, CGJ liaison on behalf of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office, and Sgt. April Bolton of the Chattanooga Police Department are indispensable in their continuing efforts to assure law enforcement officers are available to testify. This is no easy task as officers have many duties, time constraints, and emergency situations that sometimes make it difficult to come before the grand jury at a time certain. The CGJ recommends that the staff and officers continue these efforts so there is minimal downtime during CGJ sessions. 

It is noted that everyone involved in the work of this grand jury generally showed grace and patience as we worked on these timing issues, and we truly appreciated that. 

Officers sometimes present case facts for other officers who cannot be in attendance, and the CGJ believes this arrangement is helpful in preventing lag time, but it does present its own challenges. If an officer testifies for one who cannot attend, the presenter is limited to the facts that are on the face of the affidavits or case reports. If these written materials are thorough and coherent, the presenter can properly outline the facts and answer any questions we might have. However, if the written reports lack salient facts or are not well-written, then the CGJ might delay its decisions and ask the original officers to come before it to clarify. Almost always, the original officers can answer the questions. 

The CGJ is impressed with the thoroughness of the testifying officers, not only in presenting but in answering follow-up questions. These answers provide both context for law enforcement procedures and clarification of specific case facts. A couple of cases were ill-prepared for presentation with the officers not organized nor completely effective in helping us understand the facts surrounding the arrest. Although ill preparation was seldom encountered by the CGJ, we recommend that all officers become and remain diligent and trained in what facts the CGJ needs to render its decisions, and how those facts can be presented in clear and understandable language, whether written or verbal. Simple things such as speaking clearly and loudly enough for everyone to hear, having the facts reasonably organized, and using videos, photos, or diagrams that would help explain the facts (not every case requires these visual aids) – all these are of importance to the CGJ.  

Some of the cases that come before the jury are difficult to hear, but we recognize that if we are affected, the officers are even more impacted each day by the crimes they present to us. We know that some informal and formal procedures are in place to help officers cope with the stresses of their job, and we recommend that those be extended and braced up where needed to make access easy and meaningful. This recommendation has been made by previous grand juries but remains an independent recommendation of this CGJ at this time. 

Law enforcement officers also took the time to help us understand the structures, challenges, and internal workings of processing various crimes.  For instance, Officer Terry Topping of the Chattanooga Police Department provided some general drug crime information  – quantities of drugs, dosages, effects of certain drugs on the human body, Narcan and other methods of saving lives from overdoses, and what happens in the field to victims, the accused, and the officers. 

Other officers provided information for DUI issues in the field. The CGJ is very concerned about the recidivism rate of DUI offenders as well as the blood alcohol and illegal drug content of repeat offenders. We recommend our legislature continue to explore and legislate drug and alcohol crimes and help protect the populace from the terrible costs of the illegal drug trade to human lives. 

Other CPD officers briefly explained their use of various law enforcement tools; for instance, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network which automates ballistics evaluations and provides actionable investigative leads in a timely manner. It allows localities to work together on firearm ballistics that cross jurisdictional lines and can be of great assistance in solving gun crimes and identifying if a certain gun has been used in other crimes or in other jurisdictions. 

We learned about the Crisis Co-Response Unit of the Chattanooga Police Department and how that unit combines law enforcement officers, social workers, caseworkers, hospitals, first responders, and courts in assisting citizens in need of mental health care. The CGJ shares the very serious concern that mental health issues of both perpetrators and victims of crimes permeate the day-to-day work of law enforcement and the criminal courts. And we strongly believe that the crisis unit is exactly the type of program the departments should be developing and implementing. 

The CGJ recommends that other officers with specific knowledge/skills present early in each grand jury term to educate the jurors as they begin the case hearings. Knowledge of drug and alcohol issues including field sobriety and other tests, investigative techniques such as the use of NIBAN, inter-agency cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of cases – education on these and other areas help the CGJ better understand the facts  surrounding arrests and apprehensions. 

We learned that the criminals who manufacture or import, sell, and buy drugs are clogging the legal system and using up precious law enforcement resources. Illegal drugs raise problems on every level of societal structure, and some of those problems have their genesis in other countries and across borders when the manufacture and distribution of illegal drugs is brought into the U.S. 

We received excellent information on our drug and mental health courts from our judges – Judges Amanda Dunn of Criminal Court and Alex McVeagh of Sessions Court oversee the drug programs in their courts. Likewise, Criminal Court Judge Boyd Patterson and Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom oversee the mental health programs. These judges described the processes, goals, and results of the programs. (It should be noted that operating these specialized recovery courts is in addition to the judges’ normal court duties.) The general public often hears of the “failures” of drug or mental health court participants, but the overwhelming success of the programs is under-reported.  

Mental health must be a priority in Tennessee and locally. Moccasin Bend patients seem to get released without adequate regard to what happens to them as they try to move forward with their lives. Their inability to make sound decisions to begin with is obvious as a root cause of their problems. But it is difficult to determine how to require patients to stay connected to the mental health system after they are released from a facility or program. We have heard that the influx of mental health patients from surrounding counties has contributed greatly to the vast increase in the homeless population in our area. We have heard that it is difficult to have someone committed long-term in Tennessee (it should not be easy nor should it be impossible). The past statewide decisions to cut mental health funding seem to have done little more than shift the cost to the local court and jail systems and perhaps created more harm than good to those who need the services. 

Other Recommendations:  
This CGJ (and most other grand juries) strongly recommends an increase in jury “pay.”  We believe that the $13/day rate is extremely low. Although our grand jurors receive free parking while in session, they must bear the costs of travel, meals, and other expenses (for instance, childcare). The CGJ strongly recommends an increased daily stipend. No grand juror seeks to “make money” from this civic service, but also none should lose money in performing it. 

Conclusion, Additional Speakers, Visits, Tours, and Further Thanks
The CGC was pleased to have the opportunity to visit the Hamilton County Jail and Detention Center correctional facilities (formerly known as Silverdale) and the Hamilton County Juvenile Court this term. 

At the Juvenile Court, Judge Rob Philyaw and his staff gave us a tour of the facilities and explained many of the programs the court has available for young offenders, including youth and recovery courts, mediation referral assistance, child support assistance programs, and volunteer organizations such as the Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA. The goal of all these juvenile programs is to prevent recidivism and assist minors and their families in steering their lives in a positive direction. We applaud these efforts and recommend continued and additional resources for Juvenile Court to continue its work with youthful offenders. 

At the Hamilton County jail, we were able to see some of the new facilities and improvements to the older ones. It appears that the housing and care of the inmates is being considered with the new facilities and improvements to the old, but of course, ongoing review of the facilities and operations should never end. We would have liked to have had more time at the jail – our tour was somewhat rushed although enlightening, and the officers who took us around were knowledgeable and able to answer our questions. We assume the new facilities will alleviate some overcrowding and improve the overall jail facilities for inmates and staff. The jail must be given a high priority in resource allocation. 

The CGJ recommends that the Sheriff’s Department continue whenever and wherever possible to educate the public about the challenges of, and improvements to, the jail facilities. There appears to be a great deal of misinformation about the operation and facilities of the jail; some of that misapprehension is inherent in a well-functioning, questioning society. But some  is simply fundamental ignorance of how the jail is run. In sum, there must be acceptance by all that although improvements to safety, cleanliness, and other living conditions must be continually addressed, the Hamilton County jail is after all is said and done – a jail. 

All the Assistant DAs who came before the CGJ  were professional and helpful to our understanding of the law that applies to the cases the officers brought to the CGJ. None of them ever encouraged us to render any certain decision, but rather answered our questions patiently and fairly. We believe the leadership and ongoing work of the office is in solid and capable hands. We would be remiss if we didn’t specifically thank ADA Tom Landis (who spent the most time with us) for his wisdom, patience, and knowledge. His knowledge of the law and criminal procedure is matched only by his pragmatism and excellent sense of humor. 

Hamilton County Circuit Court Clerk Larry Henry and his staff – particularly Margo McConnell – are responsible for the grand jurors’ well-being and care. They are there from the first day the jury is sworn in to the last day of our service. They are always quick to assist in our requests and suggestions. This system would fail without them. 

In addition to everyone mentioned above, we further thank our criminal court judges Barry Steelman, Boyd Patterson, and Amanda Dunn for overseeing the grand juries in addition to all their other duties. They answer questions and guide us in the processes of the grand jury. They all spoke with us this term and demonstrated continued support for a grand jury that is responsible, knowledgeable, capable, and independent. 

We were unable to have all our county judges speak with us this term - this lack was due to scheduling problems only. However, in addition to those already mentioned, Sessions Court Judge Christie Sell provided great information about the workings of her court and what happens to cases before they come to us. Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Tom Greenholtz also talked with us. Judge Greenholtz, after he left private practice, was a Hamilton County Criminal Court judge for years, and then moved up to the courts of appeal. His demeanor and attitude towards the CGJ and its role in the system are very appreciated, and his knowledge and description of that system after cases leave us was invaluable. He has practical knowledge of law enforcement and the courts and spends time considering why the system works the way it does and how it can be continually improved. 

If we’ve forgotten to thank others who assisted or spoke with us through these four months, it is our lack and not theirs and we apologize. 

By Rosemarie L. Hill, Foreman of the CGJ on behalf of and with the agreement of the concurrent grand jurors, filed on April 17, 2024.

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