DISTRICT ATTORNEYS GOING TO JAIL 

DISTRICT ATTORNEYS GOING TO JAIL

To cut the county's case- load and perhaps even reduce the jail population, the Shelby County district attorney's office is going into the jail to perform a type of "triage."

As part of a pilot initiative funded by the county commission, starting October 1st, assistant district attorneys will be in the intake area of the jail to approve all charges on the front end of the criminal-justice system. They want to make sure the district attorney's office has enough evidence to prosecute those arrested before they are booked.

"If the charges are wrong or not worth devoting the resources to, the earlier we kick them out of the system, the more time and the more money everyone saves," says Tom Henderson, chief prosecutor for General Sessions Court and Juvenile Court.

In Shelby County, major crimes are handled and charged within an investigative bureau. Minor crimes, however, are handled and charged by uniform officers.

"Unlike many large cities, we've abdicated our responsibility over charging decisions to uniformed police officers," says Henderson. Although Henderson says that's the way it's been done in the past, and the district attorney's office hasn't had enough personnel to do it, having police officers charge suspects sometimes results in a wrong charge, both in over- and undercharging the suspect.

"This program was done on an experimental basis using volunteers," says Henderson, "and this was in the old jail, not the new annex. We found we were correcting a lot of charges."

If everyone in the system knows the charges are going to be dismissed when the case gets to court, it saves time all around to kick the case out beforehand. Previously, members of the prosecution would not see the charges until the case had made its way to the court docket, after the suspect had been charged, booked, usually bailed out, and had even hired a lawyer.

"If the case is something like public intoxication or spitting on the sidewalk and we know it's going nowhere, why go through all that?" says Henderson.

Another example is a domestic-violence charge. By statute, during domestic-violence calls, officers have to make an arrest if anyone in a home has been injured. Even if the couple has no history of domestic violence and the injury is as minor as a slap to the face, the officers have to take in one of the parties.

"They don't have a choice," says Henderson. "We do. We can make a judgment call if we know he or she's not going to get convicted."

Another example is when police pull over a car with several people inside and find one joint of marijuana. "Everybody knows we're not going to charge everyone in the car," says Henderson, "so why make everybody go through the entire booking process?"

The assistant district attorney won't actually be dealing with the suspects but will look over the officers' paperwork before they take it to the magistrate.

It helps that the new annex has an instant-fingerprinting system. With the system, an officer can know exactly who the suspect is, if they've ever been booked before, and if they're wanted in connection with anything else.

"We're not going to let anyone loose until we know who they are," says Henderson.

The district attorney's office has already filled one of the two positions slated by the county commission, but it will take eight assistant district attorneys to provide full coverage. Because they'll be making judgment calls and have a great deal of responsibility in deciding whether or not to dismiss the charges, Henderson says they'll be attorneys with a lot of experience.

The first one tapped is Dan Byer, a graduate of the University of Memphis law school and an assistant district attorney in the Major Crimes Prosecution Unit for five years. Most recently, he has been practicing law for an Internet-based company.

"Hopefully, we'll be there 24/7 one day," says Henderson.

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