Efforts can help stem 'catch and release'

"Catch and release" is the rule of the land for some species of fish and for far too many accused criminals caught in Jackson County. There's no simple fix for the latter, but two developments in the works should help slow the practice.

The first is the arrival of new corrections officers following completion of their training, which will allow the sheriff's office to reopen 62 beds in the jail basement that were closed last year because of a shortage of officers.

The second development is a new program pushed by presiding Jackson County Circuit Judge Tim Gerking to expedite Measure 11 cases whenever possible. It may result in only a handful of additional beds being made available, but it's a step toward ensuring that more potentially dangerous people are actually put behind bars when they commit crimes.

A story in Friday's Mail Tribune detailed the sobering reality of what happens to most crime suspects after their arrests. That reality is, for all but the most serious cases, it's unlikely they'll spend much, if any time in jail after their arrest.

Example No. 1 was the recent arrest of David Dean Johnson. Johnson was initially jailed on March 11 on warrants related to disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but was released after less than eight hours. About four days later, he allegedly robbed an Ashland bank and was again arrested. Seems like a compelling case for finding more jail space ... but, wait, there's more: Less than a day after being arrested in connection with the bank robbery, he was again released due to overcrowding.

The quick release of a suspected bank robber may raise more eyebrows than the usual comings and goings of people accused of drug crimes, but it's symptomatic of a judicial system that has few, if any, teeth. Numbers in Friday's story told the tale: Of those in the 230-bed county jail, only a handful were there for recent arrests, while 80 beds were taken up by prisoners awaiting trial on Measure 11 charges that could send them to state prison. Nearly 40 were incarcerated on federal or fugitive holds and another 44 on parole or probation violations.

Gerking has set up a weekly session to see whether prosecutors and defense attorneys can move forward more quickly on some Measure 11 cases — if it's clear there's a looming conviction or guilty plea in the works, the idea is to move those defendants along and free up space for the newly accused who would otherwise walk.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler is not alone in noting that even with its soon-to-be expanded capacity, the jail is inadequate to deal with the criminal population in the area. At some point, taxpayers can expect to be asked to fund construction of a new jail.

Until that construction happens, however, continued efforts by the sheriff, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys can help the criminal justice system live up to its name.

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