Judges have sway on pre-trial release program

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON — Robeson County Offenders Resource Center administrators last week defended pre-trial release program screening policies, pointing to District Court judges as having the final word in determining who can participate in the program.
“Even if we say that someone doesn’t meet our criteria, the presiding judge can still admit them to the program,” said David Powell, the resource center’s new director. “We have to do what the judge tells us.”
Robeson County’s pre-trial release program is administered by the center. It is designed as an alternative to jail for non-violent offenders, such as those charged only with owing child support. Specific eligibility requirements include having not committed certain felonies, having not previously violated parole, and not having been accused of using a firearm while committing a crime.
Those considered to participate in the program — created in 2003 to save the county money and reduce crowding at the county jail — are screened by resource center staff. After the background investigation is complete, a report is submitted to a judge who decides if an offender is admitted to the program.
At a meeting of the Criminal Justice Partnership Program Advisory Board on Thursday, board member Erich Hackney — who is also a Lumberton city councilman and an investigator with the county District Attorney’s Office — raised concerns about policies and procedures as they relate to offender release. He said stricter safeguards may need to be implemented.
“In my mind, there shouldn’t be some people considered for this program,” Hackney said. “I have concerns about the screening process.”
Hackney asked if judges are receiving all of the information they need to adequately determine if an offender is suitable for the program.
“Maybe something needs to be put in place so that a judge gets all of the information — the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “ … I support the program’s purpose of reducing jail overcrowding and saving money for the county. But sacrificing public safety? Absolutely not.”
Hackney ruffled the feathers of the resource center’s new assistant director, Harry Warriax, when he stated that an assistant district attorney had told him that a pre-trial release program employee would go to each assistant district attorney until he would find one who would agree with his findings about an offender’s eligibility for the program.
“That never happened,” said Warriax, who also serves as the pre-trial release program coordinator. “I’m the only one who goes to the DA. That has not happened, and it will never happen with me … That would not be good for me or anyone else.”
Warriax and Powell emphasized that judges are the final authority in the approval process.
“I do what I’m told to do by the judge,” Warriax said.
District Attorney Johnson Britt, who also is a member of the advisory board, questioned program policies.
“My big concern is that I know who is in the program, what the individual is charged with, and accountability,” he said. “If someone doesn’t meet criteria, they don’t need to be in the program.”
Powell said that while existing policies and procedures work well overall, other “safeguards” are being looked into.
“We want to cover every aspect where problems could possibly develop — we are working diligently,” he said.
The pre-trial release program, which County Manager Ken Windley says has probably saved the county more than a million dollars a year since 2003, has come under scrutiny in recent months, first after one of its officers was charged with having sex with an inmate in custody, and then when it was learned that a teenager charged with murder had entered the program after being accused of an armed robbery.
The program was thrust into the limelight when it was disclosed that 16-year-old Jamie Daquan Lowery, who is accused of murdering Al Parnell Jr., had been entered in the program. He had been removed from the program in February, however, after he was charged with assault. He was free on bond at the time of Parnell’s murder.
Another incident that raised questions about the program’s screening process concerns a kidnapping that occurred when a car with a 3-month-old child inside was stolen in Pembroke. In that case, Alexander Locklear allegedly stole the car only nine days after being released through the pre-trial release program from the Robeson County jail.
Locklear’s criminal history included burglary, common law robbery and communicating threats.

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