Creative punishments OK’d

Published 12:05 am Saturday, May 25, 2013

A pair of pretrial diversion bills approved in the recently-ended session of the legislature will give both municipal and state courts more leeway in finding punishment remedies.

Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) said one bill puts practices already in place in many municipalities on better legal standing, while the other authorizes similar practices in state courts.

As an example, he said, a municipal court may allow a first-time DUI offender to pay a fine, go to traffic school, and not have a blight on their legal record.

Each municipality will have to approve authorizing legislation to put the practice in place, he said.

“This empowers local judges and prosecutors,” Jones, who also serves as Andalusia’s municipal court judge, said. “It has to have prosecutors sign off on it.”

Asked to explain what a pretrial diversion could mean to a person in legal trouble in state courts, District Attorney Walt Merrell said, “For some people who find themselves in trouble, it will create a way to let the trouble be a learning experience and not a tattoo.”

Those who commit Class A felonies or violent crimes will not benefit from the legal tactic, he said.

Merrell said the legislation could be very important for District Court.

“In Covington County, Judge (Trippy) McGuire probably sees 3,000 cases a year,” Merrell said.

“A lot of them are things like two neighbors shoot each other with BB guns,” Merrell said. “It’s stuff that folks with common sense would have been able to work out on their own. This will give him an avenue to deal with a lot of those cases in a much quicker fashion.”

Merrell said it also will allow prosecutors to clear up a gap in drug court rules.

“Right now, if you are from out of state, even if you live in a county where there is a drug court, we have no means of transferring you to that drug court.

“We’ve had two or three 18-, 19-, or 20-year-olds (from out of state) arrested on the way to or from spring break,” he said. “Now, we have the option of dropping the cases altogether, or prosecuting them outside confines of drug court. Neither addresses problems that may be solved.”

Merrell said a jurisdiction doesn’t have to, in advance, set a remedy for certain crimes.

“It’s handled on a per-case basis,” he said. “It is completely discretionary.”

Merrell said the new legislation allows circuits to charge a fee for enrollment in a pretrial diversion program.

“The statute doesn’t set the fee,” he said. “And I haven’t gotten that far to figure out what it should be.”

Merrell said he has a moral problem with setting the justice system so that people can “buy” their way out of trouble.

“Candidly, I think there are circuits out there where that is exactly what they do,” he said.

“But I also have a moral problem with government not funding justice adequately, because that’s not fair to victims. I’ve yet to come up with a way to reconcile those two things.

Sen. Jimmy Holley (R-Elba) said he believes the legislation will be helpful. There are already successful programs in place in Houston, Pike, and Coffee counties.