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Catch and release crime fighting?

This time of year feels like we’re living in a Robert Frost poem. Leaves of gold and burnt orange cover the ground, the air is crisp, and fires are glowing in wood-burning stoves.

But “nothing gold can stay,” as Frost wrote in a famous poem. As we all know, beneath the exterior of fall foliage and our quaint towns lurks something disturbing: a serious countywide crime problem that incudes drug dealing, unlawful sex and violent felonies.

In recent weeks:



• The Nevada County District Attorney’s Office dropped four counts of child molestation charges against a 19-year-old man, Jesse Rider, who admitted to sodomizing his son on tape, in a plea agreement. Rider contends he was coerced into a confession. The DA said he had no choice, citing legal precedent.

• A Nevada County Sheriff’s Animal Control officer was arrested at a motel on Highway 49 for possession of methamphetamine. When Arlene Winstead was arrested, she was carrying her department-issued weapon.




• A local transient and sex offender, Michael Johnston, is in jail for the 11th time since he arrived in September in Nevada County. Eleven times and still no resolution?

You may have noticed the story about Johnston that ran in our newspaper on Nov. 3 had no staff byline. Why? The reporter who wrote the story was afraid of being harassed by the man if a byline was published.

According to some experts, our county’s criminal problems could soon get worse. Proposition 83, known as Jessica’s Law, passed by a wide margin on Tuesday. The passage of Proposition 83 “could make it virtually impossible for released offenders to live in most cities, forcing them to live in rural areas,” the Associated Press reported this week.

When it comes to combating crime, our work is cut out for us. It doesn’t help when we have ongoing friction between law enforcement and prosecutors.

This problem was highlighted in a Nov. 1 article in our paper by Robyn Moormeister. “The DA’s office has a habit of reducing cases without consulting (law enforcement) prior to doing it,” Grass Valley Police Capt. Dave Remillard told her. “This isn’t the first case, and it’s really disappointing.”

For his part, the deputy DA said consulting with police before offering a plea agreement is considered a courtesy. Is that following protocol or is it a slap in the face?

I’m eager to see how the tension between the county DA’s office and law enforcement gets cleared up, or if that’s possible. It comes at a critical juncture: the county DA’s office is changing leadership for the first time in 16 years. Cliff Newell was elected DA in June to replace incumbent Mike Ferguson. Newell takes office Jan. 8, 2007.

In addition, Public Defender Tom Anderson was elected county Superior Court judge on Tuesday. He also takes office in January. I’ve heard plenty of complaints that the county judicial system is too lenient.

In light of that criticism, judges and prosecutors should be asking themselves why sex offender Johnston came to Nevada County from nearby Placer County. Was it just a coincidence or does our county have a well-deserved rap for being “soft” on crime? Maybe somebody should count the number of one-way bus tickets being written to Grass Valley from outside the area.

Here’s an idea: why don’t the two newly elected officials get together with local law enforcement to discuss the problem, addressing what many people perceive as a policy of “we catch ’em and you let ’em go.” I like catch and release fishing, but this is not the same. In complex legal cases, maybe two heads are better than one.

“My hope would be the DA’s Office, law enforcement and victim services could work more collaboratively and open up lines of communication,” Rod Gillespie, project coordinator for Nevada County Victim/Witness Assistance, told our reporter. “It doesn’t happen as well as it could or should, and it has the potential to improve.”

I understand the challenges of our legal system nowadays, and the obstacles faced by judges and prosecutors with laws that may be written too tightly, endless caseloads and public scrutiny. I also understand that money is tight. To its credit, the county DA’s office tried to hire another deputy this year to help handle prosecutions but was turned down because of budget constraints.

We should be concerned about the need for better communication between the DA and law enforcement, along with analyzing and handling some cases differently.

In the Rider child molest case, court statistics will show the DA got a “conviction.” But the plea agreement could eventually give the father custody of the child, according to police.

Are we sure this was the best solution, as the DA contends? We collectively share the responsibility for protecting minors. Could the DA have handled the investigation differently; giving an interviewer from Child Protective Services another chance to talk to the boy, for example?

Sometimes you’ve got to go to trial – and risk losing. Sometimes it’s OK to challenge legal precedent.

In the case of Michael Johnston, I’d like to know the systemic reason for catching and releasing somebody 11 times. Not only is that expensive, it also can be dangerous.

I’d also like to know more about why deputy DA Jim Phillips who has 500 felony convictions under his belt has been reassigned to handle misdemeanor infractions in the wake of a looming staff shortage and continued felonies.

The stakes in this debate are high. A safer community builds trust, helps neighborhoods flourish and helps attract families. It’s also good for business.

Our newspaper will continue to follow this issue closely, just like you. It matters to us as residents and families, not just as journalists.

ooo

Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays Contact him at 477-4235, jeffp@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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