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Article 35

January 10. 2007 1:00PM

Commissioners move forward on pretrial release

The Dispatch

After a protracted debate, the Davidson County commissioners Tuesday night voted to continue examining a proposed pretrial release program for some county inmates.

By a 4-2 vote, the commissioners voted to apply for a state grant from the Governor's Crime Commission that would fund the program for two years. Pretrial release programs have been identified as a priority for that commission for 2007.

"This is about treatment of offenders who have not yet been sent to prison," said District Court Judge Mary Covington, one of several judicial officials on-hand at the meeting who praised the program as a way to reach first-time offenders. "(They're) just getting the treatment early. That's the incentive."

The grant would cover 75 percent of the costs of the program. The county would pay a $31,102 match in the first year and a $29,986 match in the second if it receives the grant.

Though the type of prisoner the pretrial release program would serve hasn't yet been determined, several officials emphasized that in Davidson County, it would be primarily geared toward young first offenders. The program would act as a substitute for bond for qualified inmates who are otherwise unable to afford it. It would offer frequent supervision, drug testing, and substance abuse and mental health counseling where needed.

"I see pretrial release as an early intervention," said Day Reporting Director Angela Scott. "We're going to be looking at the first-time offender, looking at the nonviolent offender ... we're looking at starting slow."

The Day Reporting Center is an intermediate punishment program, which provides supervision, control and accountability for offenders.

Board Chairman Fred McClure, a strong proponent of the program, said it offered a chance for young offenders caught up in a cycle of crime to get needed rehabilitation. While he cautioned that some offenders would inevitably fail in the program, others "are just looking for the opportunity to get out" of the cycle.

That line of reasoning failed to sway several speakers and commissioners at the meeting, who downplayed the program's effectiveness as a cost-saving measure and a way to reduce the jail population. Davidson County has slightly more than 300 inmates in the jail.

Bail bondsman Steve Shell called the initiative "a criminal welfare system," a characterization for which Clerk of Court Brian Shipwash later voiced his approval.

Shipwash offered a presentation detailing his opposition to the program, cautioning that many pretrial release programs begin with the intention of aiding nonviolent offenders, but that they eventually "ballooned to include cases more risky than originally intended."

He said the pretrial release program would constitute a level of unneeded bureaucracy.

"It is easier to create (a bureaucracy) than it is to get rid of one," Shipwash said.

He also pointed out that for a pretrial release program to be implemented in the county, it would need the cooperation of Resident Superior Court Judge Mark E. Klass, who does not support the program.

McClure, however, took issue with the characterization of the program as criminal welfare, saying the phrase was "a misnomer." The program's function, he said, would be to intervene before offenders become "hardened criminals."

"We can be flexible enough to make the program any way we want," he said.

Commissioner Sam Watford observed that if the county receives the grant, it can evaluate the program's funding after the grant money runs out to gauge its effectiveness.

In the end, McClure was joined by Watford, Don Truell and Max Walser in approving the application submission. Commissioner Larry Potts did not attend the meeting due to illness. Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley said he found Shipwash's argument convincing, causing him to vote against. He was joined by Larry Allen, who voiced his "strong opposition" for the record.

"This is a fishing expedition, and this boy ain't biting," Allen said.

Glen Baity can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or glen.baity@the-dispatch.com.

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