CINCINNATI (AP) - A plan to let hundreds of convicted drunken drivers and nonviolent offenders remain free until jail space becomes available undermines the justice system, judges say.
About 70 convicts checked in with jailers over the past month to see if they could start their sentences but were turned away. Another 23 didn't show up, and authorities at the short-staffed Hamilton County sheriff's office say there won't be a concentrated effort to find them.
"This situation undermines justice," Hamilton County Municipal Judge Brad Greenberg said. "It really puts the courts in a bad position. It puts the sheriff in a bad position. People lose respect for the court system."
The deferrals are the result of budget cuts that led to recent layoffs at the sheriff's office and forced closure in December of the 822-bed Queensgate jail, the county's second-largest jail. Sheriff Simon Leis was told by county officials late last year to cut his 2009 budget by $12.4 million, or 16.5 percent.
To do that, Leis began releasing inmates early and delaying the start date of sentences. Only those convicted of nonviolent offenses, including drug possession or joy riding, are chosen for sentence deferral.
Since Dec. 9, 446 people have had their sentences delayed, including 90 whose delayed reporting date recently came due, authorities said. The jail remains full, and all 67 offenders who checked in over the last month have had their sentences delayed a second time.
"No one's happy about it, especially those of us who tried to add more jail space to avoid these problems," Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper said, referring to a voter initiative rejected in November 2007 that would have increased taxes to build a larger jail.
Greenberg said he uses house arrest and other alternative sentencing whenever possible. But in some cases, jail is appropriate, he said. That includes one case in which Greenberg sentenced a woman to 180 days for a hit-and-run involving a bicyclist. The woman has had her reporting date moved twice.
"There was a real victim in that case and she's being robbed of justice," he said.
Sheriff's deputies, who already have a backlog of 118,000 outstanding warrants, won't be chasing down the 23 who recently failed to check in with authorities, sheriff's spokesman Steve Barnett said.
The most deputies can do is contact the jail if the offenders run into trouble again, he said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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