HICKS COLUMN: Keeping repeat offenders out of jail takes more than the solicitor's will
Six years ago, Scarlett Wilson warned us that letting violent repeat offenders out on multiple bonds was just asking for trouble.
She was right — but no one listened.
And a little more than a week ago, a Charleston cop got shot.
Wilson, the 9th Circuit solicitor, is probably even madder than Mayor Joe Riley and Police Chief Greg Mullen, who want harsh penalties for anyone who commits a crime while out on bail for other charges.
Wilson agrees but said that only helps on the back end. She believes the law should allow judges to presume repeat offenders pose a danger to the community and refuse them bail.
“I don't see why it's offensive to say that if someone is re-arrested while out on bail that it's a violation of good behavior,” Wilson said.
That's just common sense. But so far the trial-lawyer-friendly Legislature has refused to budge on the issue.
And judges said that very often, their hands are tied.
“Every case is different, but there are certain constitutional and statutory provisions we have to abide by,” said Circuit Judge Stephanie McDonald. “There are some people I would like to never let out. But it's not as black and white as some people would like it to be.”
So basically the law is the sticking point here. And that whole “innocent until proven guilty thing” — you know, civil rights.
That works out great for the accused, but it didn't do much for Officer Cory Goldstein.
It's a wonder anybody is in jail these days.
Wilson's office tries to get bond revoked on some of these repeat offenders, but even she says her system is not efficient enough.
Every day, the jail sends over a list of people who have been arrested.
Someone in the Solicitor's Office has to go down that list manually, cross-referencing the names to see if any of them have other serious charges pending.
Then they have to check with the arresting officers because sometimes the jail records are too vague or even wrong about the new charges.
And they have to pick and choose their battles. If the Solicitor's Office asks that bond be revoked on too many people, judges will quit listening.
Since 2007, Wilson has petitioned to have bond revoked more than 180 times. The office has won only about 60.
That means the courts let two out of three repeat offenders walk out of jail with two or more bonds.
Most judges are reticent to talk about this. They know due process is a hard concept to swallow in some of these cases.
But the simple fact is that the Constitution and state law make it clear that everyone deserves bail unless they are charged with a capital offense — murder, kidnapping or the like.
And, the sad truth is, just because someone is charged with a crime doesn't mean they are guilty.
Too many bond revocations, and more innocent people spend more time in jail.
That certainly doesn't mean judges are soft on criminals. McDonald says she has to take it on a case-by-case basis, but if the Solicitor's Office makes a motion (the only way to get a bond revoked these days), she takes it seriously.
“If they are committing offenses while out on bail, I will certainly consider revocation,” McDonald says.
But she still has to apply state law and the Constitution, which says most people arrested should be released on personal recognizance.
McDonald says if the Legislature wants to change the law, she'd welcome the additional guidance.
See, once again, it comes down to the General Assembly.
Tough on crime?
Part of the problem, other court officials say, is the fragmented justice system. Just as the jail and Solicitor's Office are not tied into a computer network, the courts may not be aware of a defendant's entire rap sheet when they come up for bail.
It's hard to keep up, especially since it's not uncommon for judges to have 30 or 40 bond hearings in one sitting.
Wilson says criminals know this, and game the system quite well.
“We have to mean what we say to have credibility. Right now, there are no consequences,” Wilson says. “Criminals laugh about this and use it to their advantage.”
Back in 2007, Wilson made her point about multiple bonds with the example of a guy arrested nine times in a two-year period: armed robbery, drugs, weapons charges — this guy got around.
The 10th time he was arrested, it was for murder.
That sounds fairly similar to the record of Mark L. Blake Jr. He has a history of firearms and drug convictions, and was busted last year, allegedly with a whole lot of cocaine.
While out on bail for those charges, he got arrested again in February on more drug charges.
He made bail again, and is accused of shooting Goldstein during a West Ashley traffic stop March 30.
Most folks say that, as slow as the system works, Wilson's office had no chance of getting Blake off the street before the shooting.
Even if the solicitor got a judge to hear a bond-revocation motion, there's no guarantee the Solicitor's Office would have won. After all, it's only batting around .333.
This shooting, which is far from unique, ought to be enough to get the Legislature off its per diem and fix the system.
But so far, these folks who claim to be tough on crime still aren't listening to the one person who really is.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blog.postandcourier.com/brians-blog.