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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Probationers Granted Judicial Reprieve by Virtue of New 'Technical Violations Letters'

As reported earlier this week on Jaablog, a progressive initiative was implemented within the criminal justice process this week. It comes from the thoughtful work of the Department of Corrections, in conjunction with Chief Criminal Judge Ilona Holmes, a personal favorite of mine, and the input of the defense bar. Very simply, it is the long awaited announcement that probationers who violate simply technical conditions of probation will not now face immediate no-bond incarceration. The new system requires the probation office to write to the jurist the following letter:

Dear Judge

This letter is to notify you that the above offender is in violation of the condition(s) of supervision noted below. There have been _______ prior violations of probation in this case. Please advise the Department within fourteen (14) days of your decision regarding the violation. The department will continue supervision of the probationer pending your decision.

Judge Holmes and the DOC's Thomas Sharrard developed the letter to replace the system of an automatic warrant being filed for a judge's signature on every violation. Now, as of March 1st, 2009, the Technical Letter is prepared by the PO, and sent for the judge to determine whether a warrant/violation should be filed, a reprimand hearing set, or no action taken.

The letter will be used for any violation except new law violations, except in cases of high risk supervision, such as a sex offender. The jurist retains the right to sign a warrant at any time, but the new procedure will surely avoid a bundle of unnecessary arrests which crowd the jails and wrongfully incarcerate probationers. It will help reduce the jail overcrowding which already is being so effectively addressed by First Appearance Magistrate Jay Hurley.

There are always going to be those who have a hard line on individuals who violate probation. Few have been as tough as the last Chief Judge, Dale Ross. He would dutifully point out that the 'chance' probationers had was being on probation in the first place, and if they cannot abide by simple rules, they should not be routinely trusted as candidates for continuing supervision. But if the purpose of probation is integrating offenders into the community as employed and stable citizens, then we need to have the courage to give them that second chance, understanding the difficulties which brought them to court in the first place are not instantly cured. There are setbacks, difficulties, and continuing issues they must address. It is hard to do when your address is the jail.

This change is a long time coming and too long overdue. I want to be thankful for securing again the things we never should have lost to begin with. But I think of one client who because of a technical violation was arrested the day before Thanksgiving and spent the entire weekend in jail. A restaurant manager, he got out on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. He showed up for work. He no longer had a job. The owner was furious he was unavailable for the Holiday weekend. He was unavailable because of an erroneous technical violation evolving out of a misunderstanding concerning the date he was moving. The judge scoffed at the error and let him out of jail at once. But it was too late.

And this change is too late in coming. Too many people have been wrongly confined. Too many lives have been unfairly torn asunder. Too many people in charge did not do their job right. How weird then that we congratulate people for doing what they should have done all along. I have to believe that along with honorable jurists dedicated to promoting judicial reform, blogs like Jaablog are partly responsible for pushing the envelope, challenging the powers that be, and moving the needle.

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