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Winters: Justice system


Sheriff Mike Winters wants to overhaul Jackson County's law enforcement system so that criminals can no longer scoff at the law.

Our justice system is broken, Winters said Wednesday.

Deputies have found they arrest criminals but then have to turn them loose several hours later because the jail is too full.

We had this one guy, Eric Ziegler, who was conducting a one-man crime spree who was laughing at us, said Winters. He was actually lining up stuff on the phone while he was in jail.

Ziegler, who pleaded guilty to a dozen charges ranging from theft to burglary, was finally sentenced to six years and two months in prison last month.

— Winters has considered asking voters to pass a levy to pay for more law enforcement, but Wednesday he told the Jackson County Commission that he wants to table that idea while his department undergoes an efficiency review.

He also wants to explore a systemwide approach to criminal justice because it's not enough just to arrest criminals. He said other departments, including the District Attorney's Office, the court system and the jail, all play a major role in enforcing the law.

Winters had proposed consolidating the Community Justice Department with the Sheriff's Department, eliminating the need for a director of parole and probation. County commissioners, however, rejected Winter's proposal, opting to hire a new director to replace Bob Grindstaff, who is retiring in July.

Winters, who personally took part in an arrest on Old Stage Road Wednesday morning, said his department had a 21 percent increase in cases in 2003. At the same time, the number of patrol deputies ' 28 ' remained the same.

Some cases, including missing children, don't receive the kind of investigative support they really need, he said.

We don't have enough detectives to work these cases the way we should work them, he said.

But having enough detectives also requires having enough manpower in the District Attorney's Office to prosecute criminals and enough jail cells to detain them.

We have to balance the entire system, he said. We have to have a systemwide approach where everybody is part of the picture.

The Sheriff's Department received a boost recently when the county earmarked &

36;2.6 million to reopen the 85-bed Talent Jail, &

36;500,000 for the District Attorney's Office and &

36;60,000 for training and equipment for deputies.

Commissioners also voted for a new traffic court to cut down on the high rate of fatalities in the county's rural areas. The &

36;856,000 budget for the court will be paid through traffic fines.

Walt Fitzgerald, a Sams Valley resident and a government watchdog, was critical of the three commissioners Wednesday for creating another layer of government.

He said the traffic court is creating a law enforcement empire in Jackson County and called for the recall of the three commissioners and the firing of County Administrator Sue Slack.

Winters responded later, I'm not trying to build an empire.

He said the county has a serious traffic problem. In 2003, 29 people died in crashes compared to 21 in 2002.

On some rural roads, he said, motorists have been clocked going 98 mph and the caseload for traffic cases increased 28 percent in 2003 over 2002.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said he didn't view the new justice court as an abusive extension of law enforcement.

He said the existing traffic court wasn't able to handle the volume of citations.

It will be expanding on what is being done in Gold Hill, he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail