VOL. 123 | NO. 96 | Thursday, May 15, 2008
Judicial Commission Role Expands, Report Shows
By Bill Dries
These are the numbers for the seven Shelby County judicial commissioners for the year that ended March 30, 2008:
- Bonds: 11,548
- Arrest Warrants: 4,110
- Search Warrants: 1,027
- Seizures: 2,014
- Ex Parte Orders of Protection: 4,542
- Protection Order Hearings: 7,989
- Probable Cause Affidavits: 32,994
- Drug Court Preliminary Hearings: 118 (since January)
- Video Arraignments: 2,488
- Denials of Arrests: 134
- 48-Hour Holds For Investigation: 395
It will be 10 years this October since the first judicial commissioners were appointed to better screen suspects arrested and taken to the Shelby County jail. The commissioner positions were created to help ease jail overcrowding by releasing those awaiting trial who aren’t violent and are not a risk to flee while awaiting court appearances.
Nearly a decade later, there are seven commissioners, six full time and one part time, compared to three full-time commissioners in 1998.
A new report shows the duties of the commissioners are expanding to include preliminary hearings for drug court defendants. The seven commissioners handled more than 67,000 cases from April 2007 through March 2008. Probable cause affidavit reviews and bond hearings were the main issues the judicial commissioners dealt with in the last year. They accounted for more than 44,000 of the 67,359 cases heard.
The affidavit reviews conclude, in most cases, that there was probable cause for an arrest. Of 32,994 reviews in the year ending March 30, the arrest was denied by the commissioners only 134 times. The judicial commissioners also granted 395 “holds” – permission to hold a suspect for 48 hours without charge while a criminal investigation is under way.
Ronald Johnson was one of the first three judicial commissioners in 1998 and he remains a commissioner in an operation whose rules and roles have shifted over time.
“People who come in on misdemeanors are automatically released on $100 bond if they have no other cases pending,” he told members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners earlier this month as he presented the report.
A minimum bond of $1,000 is set for drunk-driving offenses as well as cases involving guns. And there is sometimes the problem of suspects who give different names to arresting officers.
“Some have 25 names. … There can be problems with that. … You have to find out who he is first. You can slip through the cracks using an alias,” Johnson said. “We haven’t had anybody lost in jail on our watch, since we’ve been there.”
Take away the business
County Commissioner Sidney Chism told Johnson he wants to see if there is a way to cut the $100 bond amount for some offenses the commissioners handle if a suspect is not a risk to miss future court appearances.
“It increases the (jail) numbers and it seems crazy. I would hope that we could get to a point where we could do something about that segment that can’t afford to pay even $100,” Chism said. “It has become a business and it saddens me that it is.”
The judicial commissioners held nearly 8,000 hearings, for protection orders and granted more than 4,500, according to the report.
“Orders of protection are not criminal. But it could turn into a criminal matter if your order of protection is violated. It’s a civil matter when it gets to us,” Johnson said.
“We make a decision as to whether the protective order will be permanent. We make that decision. I have a hearing … and make a decision on a preponderance of the evidence.”
They began holding preliminary hearings in January for suspects charged with felony drug offenses. By taking on those hearings, it allows the drug court, run by General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Tim Dwyer, to devote more of its docket to treatment programs for repeat drug offenders.