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The failure to appear.

Byline: The Register-Guard

S t r e t c h e d t o t h e l i m i t

There's no better example of the Lane County criminal justice system's loss of credibility than the astounding increase in the number of defendants who brazenly and repeatedly fail to appear in court.

A recent report by the independent Public Safety Coordinating Council says the number of defendants who fail to appear soared by 40 percent from 2002 to 2005. The percentage would have been even higher if it weren't for budget-driven reductions in the number of lower-level crimes being prosecuted.

"That hurts the credibility of the system - and it delegitimizes the system," Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten Rasmussen says. "It sends a message to criminals that you can buy time by failing to appear - and that if you don't show up for court, chances are pretty good that no one will come to get you."

The cost of FTAs, justice system jargon for "failed to appear," is huge. Last year, issuing warrants in these cases cost an estimated $4.9 million in salaries and operating costs for courts, prosecution and defense lawyers, police, jail and other law enforcement services that were diverted from an already over- extended justice system.

FTAs occur with mind-numbing frequency. In 2005, 32 percent, 1,896 out of 5,884 defendants, were no-shows in Lane County Circuit Court. The percentages ran even higher - 40 percent and 39 percent, respectively - in Eugene and Springfield municipal courts.

The root cause isn't hard to determine: It's a chronic shortage of jail beds that forces jail managers to release the lowest-risk inmates. And it's no secret on the street that FTAs are regarded as minor crimes that carry few consequences. Even if offenders are jailed for failing to appear in court, it's usually a matter of hours until they're released because of jail overcrowding.

Lane County has only 375 of the 830 jail beds that criminal justice experts say it should have based on the county's population, and 100 of those beds are routinely set aside for federal inmates and use by municipal courts.

Rasmussen says the situation is so severe that he's had offenders fail to appear in his court as many as 10 consecutive times over a period of nearly two years.

Another sign of a public safety system that's stretched to the limit.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Judge says the trend `delegitimizes the system'
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 15, 2006
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