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Probation, revocation and fast tracks' to the pen

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
Oct. 27, 2002
People don't like plea bargains much. They don't like the idea that someone who has committed a felony should do one day less than the maximum sentence.
News that a manslaughter defendant has received an 18-year sentence, with 15 years suspended and three to serve, provokes comment. District attorneys and judges are likely to be buttonholed at Wal-Mart by people who are critical or curious, who ask, "Why did you let him off so easy?"
Truth is, Mississippi's prisons are overcrowded and plea bargaining, probation, suspended sentences, house arrest and diversion programs are practical realities.
But, there is a catch for defendants who get a break. If they violate their probation, they return to jail to complete their sentence all of it.
Revocation hearings
You read a lot about indictments, trials and sentences in Lauderdale County Circuit Court. You don't read much about revocation hearings.
I guess that's my fault.
At a revocation hearing, the judge listens to testimony about how a defendant violated the terms of his or her probation not keeping appointments with probation officers, not paying fines and restitution, not keeping a job, doing drugs, hanging out with known felons, getting arrested on new charges, leaving the jurisdiction, etc.
Recidivism rates are high, revocations common.
I don't often watch revocation hearings. But, I went to one this week because I was intrigued by the number of letters the defendant had written to Circuit Judge Larry Roberts.
Little girl lost?
The defendant was a small, pretty, 30-something woman with a long, blond ponytail. Her most recent letters were written from the Lauderdale County jail after she violated her probation and was re-arrested.
Why it didn't work
It might have been more persuasive if all her letters didn't reek of the idea that her situation is somebody else's fault.
If she really had been asking for a second chance, not a third or fourth. If she hadn't been convicted of two counts of embezzling money from a medical clinic in 1998, and forging a check stolen in a car burglary the next year. If she hadn't been convicted along the way of aiding and abetting a jail escape.
If she hadn't violated her probation eight different ways, including being indicted for possession of cocaine in July.
Or, if she had, in the words of Judge Roberts, ever paid "one red copper cent" of restitution.
She's going back to prison. The sentence in her most recent conviction for the forged check was eight years with five years suspended. She served her time and was paroled.
Now, she'll go back and serve the five suspended years. At least. If convicted of the new drug charge, she'll be sentenced to the maximum as a habitual offender, and that time will be added to the five years.
The quality of mercy'
On the same day, in another part of the courthouse, a young first-time felon was sentenced in a Clarke County case.
He's a high school drop-out who has been arrested for misdemeanors by the Meridian Police Department every few months since he was 15 years old.
His attorney asked Judge Roberts to consider house arrest because the defendant is a brand-new father who says he's trying to turn over a new leaf. He and his girlfriend plan to marry. He said he wanted to stay out of trouble, and keep working to support his family.
I think the judge believed he was sincere, but didn't believe he could live up to his promises at least not right now. In his case, Roberts said, house arrest would be nothing but a "fast track" to a five-year prison sentence.
Instead, Roberts is sending him not to prison, but to a "boot camp" detention facility to learn some discipline, work ethics and values. When he gets out in as little as three or four months, he'll still have to complete five years of probation, but he'll be better equipped to succeed.
It wasn't what the defendant wanted to hear, but as his mother said to him on the way out of the courtroom, "You listen, he's trying to help you."
Sometimes, mercy comes in strange disguise.