Friday, May 08, 2009

"Ankle Bracelets"

A controversy has erupted at Cincinnati city hall over council member Leslie Ghiz's proposal that the city spend about $500,000 of federal stimulus money on electronic monitoring units like the one pictured above. These ankle bracelets or "EMU" devices--as they are commonly referred to in the courts--allow a person to be placed on house arrest and assures that offenders or those awaiting trial stay confined to a certain area. Removal of the unit or the failure to stay within the confined space results in a notification to law enforcement that you are in violation of your "EMU" terms and you are then arrested and presumably jailed for violating those terms.

As a Judge, I used EMU as an alternative to jail in certain cases. They are a cost-effective and relatively safe alternative to jail for non-dangerous offenders. They are not a substitute for incarceration when someone is considered dangerous. But, they offer one more alternative for judges to have when deciding how to protect the community and to punish offenders. They can be useful.

There is a serious law enforcement crisis in Hamilton County. We are now beginning to see the signs of the problem. A community our size cannot eliminate 800 jail beds and not experience some drop-off in public safety. Most criminals are repeat offenders. The most serious crimes are usually committed by those with lengthy criminal histories. Incarcerating those who commit less serious offenses has an impact on public safety because those offenders are less apt to commit more serious offenses when they are incarcerated. I offer this opinion based on a career working in the criminal courts as a prosecutor and a judge in both trial courts.

This week, three municipal court judges testified before the city council. The judges went to the council on a bi-partisan basis to explain to the public the problems our community faces with the lack of jail space. This is not a political issue. The lack of jail space is a problem every judge, regardless of political affiliation, grapples with every day. They recognize the crisis.

As a former judge, I regularly hear from my friends and former colleagues in the courts. I hear a constant stream of complaints about how ineffective the courts have become because of the lack of jail space and the inability of the judges to incarcerate offenders. Again, it is a crisis.

The media reports that 75% of criminals incarcerated in the justice center are city offenders. I am surprised it is that low. The crime ridden communities of Hamilton County are largely in the city of Cincinnati with a few exceptions. A majority of murders and most gun crimes occur in the city. The city is most affected by crime.

Leslie Ghiz's proposal that the city use federal stimulus money to purchase these EMU devices is an important step in the right direction. There is nothing threatening the safety of the citizens of Cincinnati more than the inability of judges to incarcerate offenders. These units are one of many alternatives that city and county government should pursue to alleviate this critical problem.

Unfortunately, on Wednesday the Democrats on the city council did not support an effort to allow the full council to consider the Leslie Ghiz's proposal. They effectively killed it before a critical May 18 deadline to apply for federal stimulus dollars. Blocking Ghiz's proposal is irresponsible and reflects a misunderstanding of the real law enforcement crisis being faced by the courts every single day.

Mayor Mallory issued the following statement, "According to state law counties are responsible for jails not cities. If the County wants to spend their portion of the funding on ankle bracelets, then they are free to do so. Mayor Mallory supports the Counties ability to spend their money as they wish." (See my source here.)

Is this the kind of city-county cooperation we expect from our city chief executive during a law enforcement crisis? Essentially, Mayor Mallory says, "not our problem."

First, the federal stimulus monies that are being awarded to be spent here are not "city" funds. They are federal tax monies that ought to be used in a way to best serve the citizens.

Second, the city needs to pitch-in at a time where the county is in crisis and the crisis is one of crime committed largely within city limits.

Yesterday, Dr. Brad Wenstrup, our candidate for Mayor, issued a statement supporting council member Ghiz's proposal and urging its consideration. That is what a responsible leader should do.

Have a great weekend.