Financial Responsibility cases add to burgeoning court dockets

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   While there might not have been much in the way of progress on the business front last year in Carter County, one area appears to be booming. Any given day, Judge John Walton's General Sessions Courtroom is packed with violators of the law. On Thursdays, Juvenile Court day, there usually is an overflow crowd.
   The caseload can be exasperating not only for the judge, but for prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office and public defenders. The days court is in session, Walton said last week, "It keeps going later and later. We had 230 cases yesterday, 170-some today." The week prior, there were more than 200 cases on the docket each day.
   Last Thursday's Juvenile Court, which dealt with dependent neglect cases and custody actions, went from 9 a.m. to 6:05 p.m., Walton said. One child was turned over to state custody.
   Two weeks ago on Friday, 47 cases in sessions court were dedicated to violation of Tennessee's Financial Responsibility Law.
   "Of that, I'd say 30 out of the 47 didn't have insurance," Walton said. "I think some of the law enforcement agencies gave warning tickets about the first month when the law came into effect Jan. 1, but now it's starting to evolve a lot more."
   The judge said many of the violators find their way to court as a result of being stopped by Elizabethton Police Department officers for speeding.
   "They catch them speeding and then ask for proof of insurance. They don't have it. The officers send the speeding ticket to city court and then bring the financial responsibility over here. If they have insurance by the time they come to court, I consider that as being compliant and I go ahead and dismiss it," he said.
   On the homefront, cases of domestic assault and disorderly conduct under the domestic violence law are still plentiful. "I had a guy the other day, he had three assaults under domestic violence. One was in November, one was in January and one was last week. I revoked his bond when he came back. He ended up pleading out on two of them. Of course, the alleged victim called the attorney general and said she didn't want him in jail. But he got five days on one charge and eight on the other, consecutive, and he's still got one pending.
   "It's such a pattern and a lot of times what I see as reasons for this -- and it's true in this case -- is alcohol," Walton said.
   Also contributing to the heavy caseload is an increase in drug charges, mostly sales of Schedule I and Schedule II narcotics, according to the judge.
   "OxyContin is starting to hit this area real big time. We've only had three or four Ecstasy cases, and that's usually the younger people that go to these raves."
   The flow of DUI cases also has held steady and could even increase if the state drops the legal limit on blood alcohol content to .08 percent from .10 percent, the current limit. "If they don't lower it to .08 they're going to start losing federal highway funds," Walton said.
   Another major problem for the court system is repeat offenders.
   "Normally on the first offense an individual is put on probation through Crossroads. If they start becoming repeat offenders, in addition to their violation, we'll give them a number of days in jail on the current offense and that generally leads to a violation of their probation. On first offense, they get anywhere from 15 days to 30 days, and if they violate a second time during the 11 month-29 day probation, they flatten the sentence at 109 days, which is 30 percent of the 11-29," Walton said.
   Alcohol offenders generally are ordered to complete alcohol and drug counseling while those convicted of domestic violence must attend anger management classes. "I send them to these services, but it seems like it might take on some and not take on others," Walton said.
   One program which might help curtail the number of repeat offenders would be to assist them in obtaining their GED, according to the judge.
   "There's no question the majority of the people have not obtained their high school diploma or equivalent thereof. At Juvenile Court, a lot of times, I'll encourage them to go to the adult high school if they're not doing well in their regular curriculum and even make that a condition of their probation that they get their GED.
   "In prisons they provide that service and it might be something that should be looked at if they're serving state time or even county time here," he said.
   Those who obtain a GED while in jail could benefit from an increased sense of self-worth. It also would make them more employable upon release, thus benefiting the county because they would be better able to pay fines, court costs and restitution. Those who are unable to find employment generally wind up back in court for non-payment.
   Walton said some juvenile offenders are now ordered to complete Moral Recognition Therapy. The Saturday morning class "teaches them to be more responsible for their own actions and to recognize right from wrong. It's a real good program," he said.
   The budget crunch which pervades federal, state and local governments also could affect the court system, however, Walton said, "This is an area where I just can't see that we can cut back. The demand's always there."
   One change which could make a difference on the sessions court caseload is the establishment of a "drug court," funded by the Department of Justice. Walton and the drug court coordinator are assembling a 10-person team which will receive training at the end of April. Drug court involves the district attorney's office, the public defender, a probation officer, counselor, an East Tennessee State University professor, Elizabethton Police Department, Carter County Sheriff's Department, and others.
   "I think the drug court can be a viable option for certain individuals, but then again, I think the problem is going to be funding," Walton said. In drug court, the defendant is no longer simply placed on probation and left with the probation officer.
   "It's a lot more intense -- a strict curfew, no alcohol, no drugs, and you're tested more. If you do good, it's more of a rewards program; but if you do bad, you're going to go to jail anyway. I've seen people in the courtroom I knew could not make it through drug court," Walton said.
   Drug courts already have been established in Johnson City and Unicoi County, the judge said, "but there's only like two people in each county in drug court right now, and that has a lot to do with the lack of funding," he said.
   Drug court is for persons charged with either alcohol or drug crimes but who have not been charged with a violent act. "In other words, you can't have an assault and an alcohol charge. If it's a violent offense, they would not qualify for drug court," Walton said.