Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council advertising for staff

Although all the pieces aren’t yet in place, there were signs Tuesday the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is starting to function as intended.

At the fourth meeting of the coordinating council, Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who chairs the body, updated its members at a meeting in the Douglas County Courthouse on efforts to put a couple of missing pieces in place.

It has been acknowledged since the coordinating council was formed in March that it would need staff support. Gaughan said a notice for a coordinator position has been posted at a number of universities, other communities with criminal justice coordinating councils and in publications aimed at public administrators. The notice informs those interested in the position, which pays from $65,000 to $96,000 annually depending on experience, that application reviews would begin July 5.

With that timeline and the need for the chosen candidate to give notice to a current employer, it would probably be two months before the position is filled, Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said.

Gaughan has been charged to find an authority on race relations to add to the coordinating council. He has communicated with a number of community groups on the appointment and was looking for consensus before bringing a recommendation to the coordinating council, he said.

What Gaughan found encouraging after the meeting was the dialogue among members that pointed to ways to make the county’s criminal justice system more efficient. That was one of the charges the County Commission gave the body when it was created in March.

The coordinating council provided a forum for the professionals around the table to jointly look more deeply into the issues with which they deal everyday, Gaughan said.

“This is an environment in which they can talk about what they are doing,” he said. “It’s good they have the space to collaborate, brainstorm and find answers to some of these open questions.”

Those conversations started as Shaye Downing, the Douglas County defense attorney representative on the coordinating council, shared concerns of her fellow defense attorneys. Among those concerns were two Douglas County Jail overcrowding issues: The farming of inmates to other counties and placement of women in a single pod at the jail without separation of inmates for severity of crimes or mental illness.

Generating more discussion were a couple of defense attorney concerns about bond procedures.

One such issue was what seemed to be arbitrary bond decisions during defendants’ second appearances before judges, Downing said. She acknowledged judges used a required state schedule when assigning bond for some low-level offenses, such as first-time DUIs, but there were others in which they were free to use their own judgment.

“Three defendants before the court for the same offense could get three different bond decisions,” she said. “We don’t know how to counsel our clients.”

Judges could be using information his office supplied in making those decisions, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said. His office did background checks on inmates on such things as criminal history or a history of past failures to appear, which was shared with judges and used to make bond decisions. Although there were some “archaic” constraints on what could be shared publicly all that was read to judges could be made available to defense attorneys, he said.

It was suggested a checkoff system of information given to the judge could be developed for defense attorneys.

“If you have information, share it with us,” Downing said. “Believe it or not our clients are not always truthful about their backgrounds.”

Another concern was the difficulty of securing bail for individuals bail bond services won’t consider because the inmates are without addresses or jobs. There are incidents when those inmates are in jail for non-violent, low-level crimes that will not require jail time with a conviction, Downing said. It seemed wrongheaded to keep a person in jail while such a case was being resolved, she said.

There was currently a pilot program to address just that concern, said Mike Brouwer, Douglas County Corrections re-entry director, and Michelle Roberts, chief Douglas County court services officer.

Much like the district attorney’s report to the judge, the program assesses the likelihood inmates in jail for non-violent, low-level offenses would show up for court appearances, Brouwer said. Big risk factors for skipping court dates were two or more past failures to appear, prior convictions, a history of violent crime and pending cases. Homelessness is not a significant factor, he said.

Those in the pilot program found not to be at risk of missing court dates were released on “own recognizance” bonds. Some are required to keep in touch with the courts once a week or have scheduled visits from a court officer to be reminded of coming court dates, Brouwer said.

Court services and the sheriff’s office haven’t talked much about the effort because it was a pilot program, Roberts said. That could soon change.

Brouwer said the two agencies were ready to go forward to its next phase, which would require the County Commission to authorized funding for 1 or 1.5 positions.

After the meeting, Downing said the response to the defense bar’s concerns was encouraging.

“The reason I joined this council was to find solutions,” she said.