Being homeless is not a crime

Homeless people frequently run afoul of law enforcement for any of a number of minor offenses, but so far, simply being homeless is not a crime. Try telling that to the three people being held in the Jackson County Jail as material witnesses in a fatal stabbing that took place in a homeless camp in June.

Carl Albert Bogenschneider, 51, Lynn Ann Bogenschneider, 46, and Timothy Hilbert Williams, 39, are in jail, but have not been accused of committing any crime.

The law allows courts to hold key witnesses in criminal cases when their testimony is essential to the prosecution's case and when the court decides they are likely to flee rather than testify during the trial. In the case of Williams, who has been arrested 49 times in this county and has a history of failing to appear in court, holding him is certainly justifiable.

But the Bogenschneiders, a married couple, have lived in this area for 10 years, already testified before a grand jury and say they have no reason to leave or to fail to appear to testify in the stabbing case. Not only that, but neither has a criminal record — not an easy accomplishment for people with no permanent address.

Judge Ron Grensky ruled in favor of the prosecutor in the case, who asked that the three be held because they were "hard to find" after the stabbing. They have been in jail for 11 weeks, and barring some further action by the court they will remain there until Sept. 25, when the trial is scheduled to begin.

Grensky said he would reconsider the detention if the trial were postponed, and he asked attorneys in the case to explore some kind of electronic monitoring at a local motel.

The judge should consider such an arrangment sooner rather than later.

The Bogenschneiders are taking up space in a jail that routinely releases criminal suspects because of overcrowding, and are being housed, clothed and fed at considerable public expense. Putting them up in an inexpensive motel with the kind of electronic monitoring routinely used for criminal offenders should satisfy any concern that they won't stick around to testify.

The issue of homelessness and its effect on the community should not be a part of this discussion. The law in question was intended to hold key witnesses for short periods of time who are clearly likely to run if released or who fear retaliation from those involved in the case.

None of that appears to apply here. Leaving these people in jail simply because they are homeless violates the basic principle of fairness. Holding them for months on such flimsy justification raises the question of whether their constitutional rights may have been violated.

If the Bogenschneiders were suspects in a criminal case and no charges were filed against them, they would have been released in 48 hours.

If they are suspects, then charge them. If they are not, let them out.

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