More than a decade ago I had the opportunity to work on a reporter’s beat they called courts and cops.
I was able to write about police, fire, rescue and the military, as well as civil and criminal court proceedings in Carteret County on the coast of North Carolina.
There has been a lot of talk recently about decriminalization and letting non-violent offenders out of prison because they are incarcerated for things like drugs or theft. So I thought that I’d share some of what I’ve seen rather than quote statistics provided by pollsters who have an agenda to prove.
Like so many things in life, courts and incarceration aren’t what you might think. My experience sitting in criminal court was that every month there was a cattle call of everyone who had been arrested and had a felony criminal case scheduled — usually about 150 people in that small county.
They all filed in and stood before the judge, one by one, and each had the right to a trial by jury, a trial by a judge or they could work out some deal with the prosecutor. The amazing part for me was how few cases ever really went before a jury — maybe just one or two a month, but sometimes none at all.
The way it typically began was the accused had a lawyer negotiate a plea agreement, which meant that he or she would plead guilty to a lessor charge — possibly a misdemeanor — and be set free with a suspended sentence.
Second and third-time offenders would usually plead guilty to something a little more serious and then have supervised probation. They would have a series of requirements to meet with a probation officer, get a random drug test and similar things.
Usually by the time an accused was awaiting trial on about seven to nine charges, then things started to get a little serious. They would have to negotiate through a lawyer — again — and plead guilty to two or three felonies, usually sentenced to something like five years or more, have two or three years suspended and the remaining time meeting with a probation officer, again.
It was amazing, though, that a very large number — it appeared to be about 60 to 70 percent, maybe even more — failed to make meetings or court appearances and that was what typically meant more jail time.
So these men and women in North Carolina were not thrown in jail on a single, alleged trumped-up charge. The ones I saw go through court system were given chance after chance after chance, until something happened and they had to go off the improvement program.
Something to remember with these so-called non-violent crimes, that came up in court many times, is that a lot of money changes hands and there is no legal protection for the merchant.
If he or she gets robbed, it’s not like the drug dealer or “fence” of stolen property is going to make a report with the police or sheriff’s department.
So in this world, whoever is bigger, stronger and more violent is the one who keeps the merchandise or the money.
That doesn’t typically attract the kind, simple, docile, patient and considerate people in society.
My dad used to say about football — “that ball does attract a crowd.”
It’s the same way with drugs and stolen property — “that money does attract a crowd.”
So, I suspect that there are individual cases that might warrant such special consideration — maybe early release from prison and it might save the taxpayers some money.
I advocate a level of forgiveness that I hope is in line with my Christian beliefs.
I would just recommend caution when releasing large numbers of people from prison in fell swoop by decriminalizing the entire statute or criminal code.
Do things in increments, with checks and balances. I don’t think any of us want to empty the prisons to save money, only to find out that we need a much larger security force to patrol the streets.
You might even find more people buying guns for self defense and taking classes to use those firearms.
I’d hate to be penny-wise and pound foolish. If the voters want to do this thing, then just do it slowly, a few people at a time and track their progress.
Once you change the rules, there will be no turning back if you make a mistake.
Be careful when you let the genie out of the bottle or open Pandora’s box.
You’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.
Reach Eric Steinkopff at [email protected] or 580-482-1221, ext 2072.