Jackson County targets chronic court skippers
A new effort to hold people in jail who regularly skip their court dates has already netted 13 criminals who together have 150 cases and failed to appear for 500 court appointments, according to data from the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s pretty amazing these 13 people would represent 150 cases. That many failure-to-appears is also pretty amazing,” said District Attorney Beth Heckert.
Law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, the Jackson County Jail and Jackson County Circuit Court are working together on the initiative launched by Sheriff Nathan Sickler two months ago.
The court generates a list of people who have missed a large number of court dates, Heckert said.
The missed court hearings can range from pre-trial conferences to skipping out on a scheduled guilty plea.
The Medford Police Department creates a “hot sheet” with full-color photos and descriptions of the most wanted chronic court skippers. The “hot sheets” are distributed to law enforcement agencies around the county so police on the streets can more easily identify and arrest the offenders.
The jail is reserving up to 10 beds for those who are arrested.
“They are held there until they resolve their court cases or make bail,” Heckert said.
When a person on the list is jailed, the prosecutor assigned to the person’s cases is notified and puts together a plea agreement offer covering all the cases. The defendant also has the choice of going to trial, Heckert said.
Of the 13 people arrested since the beginning of the initiative, three have received prison sentences, four have been sentenced to probation, one entered an intensive supervision program, four have pending cases and one entered guilty pleas on two cases and is scheduled to go to trial on three cases later this month, according to DA’s Office data and court records.
Tanner Ray Sowell, 35, was among those sentenced to prison.
Dating back to 2003, a list of charges filed against him fills a full page.
In May 2017, Sowell was arrested and accused of stealing a fishing boat on a trailer valued at $40,000, a backhoe and other items worth more than $10,000 and more than $300,000 in marijuana. The thefts occurred on three different properties, according to a probable cause affidavit.
Court records show he was released from jail without having to post any bail a week after his arrest.
Sowell appeared in court to plead guilty to aggravated theft charges on Oct. 25, 2017, but his sentencing was postponed to Nov. 13, 2017, according to court records.
He didn’t show up for his sentencing hearing and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Sowell was arrested again in February, held in jail on $25,000 bail and sentenced to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
He entered prison custody on March 8. His earliest release date is April 28, 2021, according to DOC records.
Heckert said while some of the people targeted in the failure-to-appear initiative have been sentenced to prison, most committed lower level crimes that do not make them eligible for prison sentences.
“We want people to come to court and resolve their cases,” she said.
Heckert said some of the people who received probation could still go on to commit new crimes, fail to appear in court and start the whole process over again.
However, many can take part in programs while on probation, such as drug treatment, that could help interrupt the cycle of crime, she said.
All 13 people targeted so far have drug charges in their criminal histories, according to court records.
Individually, their criminal histories reveal a range of past and current charges, including identity theft, forgery, burglary, robbery, driving under the influence of intoxicants, fleeing from police, reckless driving, unauthorized use of a vehicle, resisting arrest, child neglect, coercion, assault, strangulation, menacing, kidnapping, sodomy and unlawful use of a weapon.
Heckert said she hopes word will get out among defendants that there could be a consequence for skipping court dates.
Generally when they don’t show up for court, a warrant is issued for their arrest and they are caught by police, but then only spend a short time in jail, she said.
Now they may hear that an acquaintance was held in jail for three or four weeks before resolving outstanding court cases.
“Hopefully it will make a defendant think twice,” Heckert said.
She said when people skip court, they waste the time of the whole criminal justice system and add to the workload.
“The defense attorney is ready and there to meet with the client and the client is not there,” Heckert said. “Sometimes victims have been notified. They get frustrated because they have been notified so many times already.”
Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Dan Penland, who heads the jail, said people who fail to appear in court and have warrants issued for their arrest put added strain on the court system, jail staff, police on the streets, the records employees who process the warrants and everyone else involved in the criminal justice system.
He said the failure-to-appear initiative is working well so far.
Penland said the large number of criminal cases and missed court dates accumulated by just 13 people shows the county’s jail is not big enough to serve the population.
“They’re definitely not numbers I would like to see. It clearly shows our jail is too small. If we had a bigger jail they never would have been released in the first place,” he said.
Inmates are regularly released from the 292-bed jail due to overcrowding.
The problem is especially acute for female inmates.
The jail has 42 beds for female inmates, who must be kept separated visually and by sound from male inmates. On a recent day, the jail was over-capacity by six females, Penland said.
The women’s section is on the ground floor, while men occupy basement and second floor levels of the jail in Medford. The overflow of women is housed in alternate spaces, like holding cells for incoming inmates.
“If we put them upstairs, the guys can see them and that starts a whole new set of problems,” Penland said.
Of the 13 people targeted so far by the failure-to-appear initiative, seven are women.
Heckert said she was surprised by the relatively large number of women since male criminals outnumber females. But she attributed the high proportion of women to the lack of female beds at the jail.
Penland agreed with Heckert’s assessment.
“We’re so limited on female beds,” he said.
A 2017 audit concluded the jail, built in 1981, is too small and has an outdated design with long hallways that makes supervision of inmates difficult.
However, a recent sample survey of voters commissioned by Jackson County showed a majority of voters would balk at paying higher property taxes to cover the construction and operation of a $100 million jail with 1,000 beds.
The total annual cost for that size of jail would be $218 for the owner of property assessed at $200,000.
Penland said he and Sickler are continuing to give presentations to community groups about the need for a new jail.
However, discussion is now underway about whether there are ways to lower the costs of a new jail, Penland said.
Even if new jail funding were approved by voters, the siting, planning and construction process would take several years, according to county officials.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” Penland said. “Hopefully we will keep looking at other things like the failure-to-appear initiative the sheriff started to reduce the impact on the criminal justice system.”