Mayor’s bond reform panel nears consensus on recommended changes to criminal justice system

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 29, 2013 


— A Columbia police officer should attend every bond hearing in cases of significant crimes and bring a package of information to the judge to aid in deciding whether a suspect should be held or allowed back on the streets.

That will be one of several expected recommendations from the mayor’s panel on violent crime and bond reform when it releases its final report next month.

The panel met Tuesday at City Hall to review its draft proposals, which included everything from gang affiliation of defendants to legislative issues to risk assessments for everyone charged in a crime.

“Many of the officers don’t appear in bond court because it’s in the morning and they make the arrests at night,” said Columbia Municipal Judge Carl Solomon, who is a member of the panel. “It doesn’t have to be the same person. Whenever an officer is there you learn something that you didn’t learn from paperwork.”

The panel was organized in July after the shooting death of 33-year-old Kelly Hunnewell, a single mother who was killed during her early morning work shift at a bakery. The shooting sparked community outrage, because two of the three teens charged with murder were free on bond when she was killed. Mayor Steve Benjamin organized the 12-member panel as a response.

While the panel has no authority to impose its recommendations, its chairman, former SLED chief Robert Stewart, said the recommendations can make a difference if those in charge adopt them.

“We have some real meaningful issues that we are addressing,” Stewart said.

One of those is whether it’s possible for police or jail authorities to conduct a risk assessment of everyone charged with a crime to help determine the likelihood of a suspect committing another crime. Other states have formal pretrial services similar to the federal court system, where case workers evaluate things such as criminal history, employment, home stability, pending charges and other factors that can predict the likelihood that someone will commit another crime.

Panel members realize some suggestions will cost money and will take time to implement, Stewart said.

“We aren’t just all of the sudden going to have a bunch of money fall out of the sky,” he said. “It takes time, but somebody has to get started.”

In addition to recommending that officers attend bond hearings, the panel also will suggest that police always provide incident reports to the judges. Currently, judges receive criminal background information from a national database that is provided by clerks, Solomon said.

Jennifer Timmons, Columbia Police Department spokeswoman, said officers already send incident reports and other documentation to bond hearings. She said that habit began after Interim Chief Ruben Santiago met with Municipal Judge Dana Turner, who oversees city court. Officers can send the information via email to specific judges, she said.

In serious criminal cases, officers not only attend court but often encourage community groups to attend bond hearings to send a clear message about their concerns, Timmons said.

But the department does have issues with officers working a full night shift, then appearing at bond court in the morning, Timmons said, because of safety and labor practices that limit the number of hours officers can work in a 24-hour period.

One issue that was part of the fallout in the Hunnewell case is an early legal assistance program that the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office provides Columbia police and Richland County sheriff’s deputies. Through that program, officers can call a prosecutor to ask advice on what charges to bring and to see whether there is enough evidence to support those charges.

In the Hunnewell case, a Columbia police investigator and a 5th Circuit assistant solicitor did not agree on whether to charge 18-year-old Lorenzo Young in an earlier burglary even though his fingerprint had been found at the victim’s house. That breakdown happened just 11 days before Young was charged as a suspect in the Hunnewell shooting. Neither agency accepted responsibility in the failure.

The bond panel will recommend that the Police Department continue participating in the early legal assistance program but will urge .police and prosecutors to act quickly on disagreements by taking cases to their supervisors.

The panel also will:

• Support a bill pending in the Legislature that would allow circuit court judges to revoke bond if a defendant is arrested for a violent crime while the trial is pending. The panel also will make other legislative suggestions, since criminal penalties and bond regulations are set by state law.

• Support a requirement that judges consider gang affiliation when setting a defendant’s bond.

The panel is scheduled to meet again Nov. 18 to present its final report.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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