Editorial: Blight Patrol Example of Cleaning Up Crime

Saturday, September 21, 2013, Vol. 6, No. 39

Most people who go to prison will get out at some point. The question is, will they change their lives?

There is help through programs like Lifeline and its Blight Patrol, but much of this is up to the person coming out of prison and – make no mistake – it is difficult.

One of many reasons it is difficult is because it is hard for someone with a criminal record to get an honest job. Employers are rightfully hesitant to take a chance, especially in such volatile economic times. Often, any kind of criminal record stops the job application process then and there.

Because the recovery process for offenders is so difficult and requires so much effort and support, it begs the question of whether we send people to prison who don’t really need to be there.

We aren’t the first to ask such a question. Prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys have been asking the same questions on a case-by-case basis for years and making adjustments as necessary.

We think these are temporary patches on a problem that amounts to calling on our criminal justice system to remedy too many things that aren't crimes or that can be solved with treatment instead of punishment.

The system, whose capital locally is 201 Poplar Ave., has been running on automatic pilot for far too long. Increasingly, this machine pulls more and more people into its cogs and wheels.

These aren’t always criminals. It begins with people who have violated traffic ordinances. Don't want points on your insurance? Go to city court to pay. But you don't see a judge, at least not directly. You just have to pay in a courtroom because if you mail it in, it goes on your insurance. Meanwhile, you parked illegally because all of the folks who work at 201 get the legal spots and you get another ticket that you may not be able to pay, which stays in the system, and you may get towed.

If your license was suspended you probably drove to the 201 Poplar anyway because you also have to continue to drive illegally to get to work on time. It is either that or depend on a bus system that is more dysfunctional than the criminal justice system.

So it begins and quickly snowballs. Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush estimates about 20 percent of the caseload at 201 Poplar is the kind of stuff that could be handled some other way.

This isn’t a rant on parking tickets. That is just the most obvious symptom of a dysfunctional system it is within our power to fix.

We have courts to deal with and help drug offenders and help veterans. We will soon probably have a court whose docket helps defendants with mental health issues.

Part of the answer is offering this kind of help before someone’s name appears on a court docket.