An effort to hold people in jail who repeatedly skip their court dates has netted 79 people who were no-shows 2,270 times.
The failure-to-appear initiative was launched in the spring by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office — which runs the jail — in cooperation with police departments, the District Attorney’s Office and Jackson County Circuit Court.
The 79 people arrested so far this year had accumulated 437 unresolved court cases, according to statistics from the DA’s Office.
Most have now been sentenced to probation or, in the more serious causes, sent off to state prison, data shows.
In 2015, Erika Eldeen Wingfield of Medford was arrested for methamphetamine possession. She was released on her own recognizance — setting off a long cycle of failing to appear in court and having warrants issued for her arrest, Jackson County Circuit Court records show.
When she was jailed through the failing-to-appear initiative in March, she had nine unresolved criminal cases and had skipped 86 court dates — putting her in the lead for most missed court hearings among those caught, according to data from court records and the DA’s Office.
Her cases included identity theft, eluding police and manufacture, delivery and possession of drugs, court records show. She pleaded guilty in April to some of the charges and was sentenced to probation, according to court and DA’s Office records.
Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Lucy Durst said the whole criminal justice system is strained by chronic court skippers.
A prosecutor, defense attorney and judge end up wasting time on the day a defendant doesn’t show up for a scheduled hearing. The judge then issues a warrant for the person’s arrest, she said.
“That requires law enforcement to go out and find these people,” Durst said. “They’re spending time on their shift locating people, arresting them on their warrants, bringing them back into custody. And that’s time that they aren’t spending on other cases or investigations.”
The sheriff’s office reserves 10 jail beds to keep court skippers behind bars until they resolve their cases. Most close with a plea agreement, while some go to trial.
The jail can hold 300 inmates during the day and 315 at night, when inmates are sleeping and easier to supervise.
Durst said setting aside the 10 beds can’t solve chronic jail overcrowding that regularly triggers inmate releases, but it does help the worst court skippers understand there may be consequences for not showing up in court.
“There’s a lot of strain on the justice system from people chronically failing to appear,” she said. “If the jail doesn’t hold people, they don’t have any incentive to show up to court.”
Some defendants have had unresolved cases dragging on for years.
Durst said court skippers who are held at the jail usually resolve their cases within two to four weeks.
That quick resolution is due in part to the cooperative efforts of criminal justice agencies.
Police and deputies target chronic court skippers by referring to regularly updated “hot sheets” with full-color photos and descriptions of the worst offenders. The sheets are distributed to law enforcement agencies around the county.
When a person on the list is caught and jailed, the prosecutor assigned to the person’s cases is notified and puts together a plea agreement offer covering all the cases. The defendant also has the choice of going to trial, according to District Attorney Beth Heckert.
“I think that it’s working,” Durst said. “Since the inception of the program, it’s getting our cases resolved. The jail feels it. Our office feels it. Defense attorneys feel it’s working.”
Although the initiative has reduced the strain on the criminal justice system, Durst acknowledged it can’t stop defendants from re-offending, especially those on probation who are still living in the community.
Wingfield, the most prolific court skipper, was arrested again in June after police say they caught her in a Medford hotel with heroin, meth, digital scales, packaging, cash and drug records, according to court records.
She was released on her own recognizance from jail and has already missed two court dates, court records show.
The DA’s Office has filed a notice saying it intends to seek a stiffer sentence than usual for drug crimes based on the fact that Wingfield was on probation at the time of her most recent arrest, according to court records.
Some chronic court skippers have received prison sentences.
Marcella Faye Melgoza, the fifth most frequent no-show with 63 missed court dates and eight criminal cases, has been sentenced to prison, according to DA’s Office data.
The length of her total sentence is not clear from court records, which don’t detail whether sentences for separate cases will be served consecutively or will overlap. Her longest single sentence is 22 months.
Melgoza had unresolved cases dating back to 2016 that included charges for drug possession, resisting arrest, hindering prosecution, supplying contraband, negotiating bad checks, driving under the influence of intoxicants, failing to perform the duties of a driver after damaging property, driving with a suspended license, theft, identity theft and forgery, according to court records.
Four of the five most frequent court skippers so far this year have been women.
The number of women on the chronic failure-to-appear offender list has been disproportionately high since the initiative began.
Those in law enforcement say that’s likely because the jail is especially short on beds for female inmates, who must be kept separated visually and by sound from male inmates. Women are more likely to be released due to overcrowding, lessening the consequences for illegal behavior and giving them a chance to re-offend.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.