Drug offenders spend more time in jail than prison

OKEECHOBEE — It’s all about the score sheet — that three-page state-issued form used by Florida prosecutors and judges to determine if a defendant has ‘scored’ enough points to be sentenced to prison.

“Score sheets are geared to put the more violent criminals in prison rather than drug crimes. Otherwise, our prisons would be filled with drug offenders,” said assistant state attorney Ashley Albright, the attorney in charge of the local state’s attorney office. “The reason for score sheets is to keep sentences uniform across the state.”

Mr. Albright, who has been in the local office for 20 years now, then broke down how ridiculously hard it can be to send a drug offender to prison.

According to the score sheets, a defendant could conceivably be convicted up to 18 times on simple felony drug possession charges and not score enough points to earn a prison sentence. Then, on that person’s 19th conviction, the score sheet requires they receive a prison term of 12.6 months, or 1 year and 15 days if their point total has reached 44.8.

“That sentence is the baseline minimum,” explained Mr. Albright. “The judge could give them up to five years. The offender would then have to serve 85 percent of their sentence.”

On average, he continued, a case like this could take anywhere from six months to a year to go to trial.

“The judge is likely to send them to prison before that. But, the score sheet doesn’t require that,” he noted.

And even though the prosecutor cannot go into specifics about their cases, the score sheet and the laws that apply to it are a big part of the reason why a local triumvirate, with a total of 52 arrests and 15 felony convictions, has spent a total of 297 days in the Okeechobee County Jail since 2013.

However, Walter ‘Freak’ Jackson, his brother Walter ‘Nunee’ Jackson and their sister Merita Jackson have spent very little time in prison.

Freak, 60, has been charged with seven felonies since 1982 and has been convicted twice. He has various arrests that include drug charges, firearm possession, burglary and violation of probation. However, he has never spent a day in the Department of Corrections (DOC). All of his jail time has been spent in the county jail.

His brother, Nunee, has been arrested a total of 30 times since 1977 with 23 of those arrests being felonies. The 58-year-old Nunee has been sent to prison twice and has served a total of 16 years.

Merita, 54, has been arrested 14 times with a total of 20 felony charges and eight felony convictions. DOC records show she was sentenced to 90 months in prison on Jan. 28, 2011. She was then released in 2016.

All three were again arrested in August of this year during a roundup of alleged street-level drug sellers in Okeechobee County. Freak and Merita have been released on bond, while Nunee remains in jail. Jail records indicate he’s been in the county jail for approximately 179 days this year.

At the current rate of $58 per day, per inmate, the Jacksons have amassed a bill totaling roughly $27,608 for the time they’ve spent in the county jail.

Three other local prisoners — Conrad Thitchener, 49, Lisa Kramer, 47, and Michael Exantus, 31 — have also become major expenses for Sheriff Noel Stephen while they await trial.

Thitchener had been in jail a total of 1,083 days for a total cost of $62,814.

Kramer has been in the county jail for 728 days and her total comes to $42,224. Exantus’ time behind bars at the county level comes to a total of $86,072. He has been in jail for 1,484.

As of Wednesday, Sept. 20, there was a total of 20 current inmates who have been in jail for 365 days or longer while they await trial. That means each one of those prisoners is costing local taxpayers $10,220 each, per year. That total includes Thitchener, Kramer and Exantus.

Thitchener is awaiting trial for the alleged Dec. 23, 2014, rape of a West Palm Beach woman. Kramer is being held on five charges that include vehicular homicide and driving under the influence causing death to a human or child. Exantus is being held on a charge of first-degree murder.

When asked why these alleged offenders are having to wait so long for their respective trials, Mr. Albright said because those named above haven’t been to trial he cannot talk about their cases.

In general, however, he said there could be any number of reasons for the lengthy delays.

First, in regard to the Jacksons, the majority of their alleged offenses have been drug related — either for simple possession or sales — which scores low on the score sheet.

“If they come back and reoffend, they just get additional points on the score sheet. Once they start to reoffend and get more points, then we can get more prison time,” he explained.

And to date, none of the Jacksons have reached the point of being classified as habitual felony offenders or prison releasee reoffenders.

To receive a penalty enhancement a habitual offender (H.O.), Mr. Albright said a person has to have two prior felony convictions and those findings of guilt cannot be for the same criminal episode. As an example, if a person writes 10 bad checks that is still just one criminal episode. That person would then have to commit and be found guilty of another felony to make a second criminal episode.

In regard to the situations surrounding the Jacksons he indicated “… for two different (criminal) episodes, one of them cannot be a felony drug possession charge.”

“I can do a habitual offender for drug cases, but one of the prior crimes cannot be for simple drug possession,” he offered.

To be classified as a prison releasee reoffender, or PRR, the new offense has to be a violent crime against a person and it has to be committed within three years of the offender’s release from prison.

“At sentencing, I have to prove all the prior offenses and the new crime, and the judge has to make a finding that I met all the criteria,” explained the prosecutor. “PRR is not an enhancement. It is actually a minimum-mandatory sentence, and the judge cannot go below the maximum.”

As for Thitchener, the prosecutor again said he could not talk about the specifics of that case.

He would say, however, the state has tried to get the case to trial.

“We’ve tried to get this to trial the last several months. We’ll try to get it to trial in October,” he said.

Mr. Albright went on to explain there can be any number of reasons why cases are delayed, such as: witnesses move; the defendant fires their attorney then a new one has to be brought on board and the process starts all over again; a witness doesn’t show up for their deposition, which mean it has to be rescheduled; waiting for DNA results; a lack of resources; and, a lack of funding from law enforcement level all the way up to the court system.

“If we force a case to trial and the defense isn’t ready it can be sent to the appellate court, who will send it back because the defense was ineffective.

We’re in a ‘Catch-22’ here,” he added.

The situation surrounding Kramer’s wait is similar to Thitchener’s in that it’s been twice set for trial but didn’t go. He expects it to go to trial next month.
Regarding Exantus, his situation is much different.

According to court papers he has been found to be incompetent and has been in a mental health facility for a lengthy period of time. But, said Mr. Albright, he’s back in the county jail and waiting for another competency hearing.

“When a case is finally ready for trial it competes on the docket for at least five to 10 — sometimes 20 — other cases waiting to go to trial, I really don’t have a solution to solve the problem,” noted Mr. Albright. “If I was to stand up and say: ‘Judge, I object to a continuance,’ it will come to a point where the judge will say enough is enough. But, it will likely go to the appellate court who will then send it back for another trial.

“So, my hands are tied.”

 

Below is part 1 of the above story.

Repeat offenders’ jail time is costly to county

Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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