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January 26, 2005 - The Kansas City Star (MO)

A Lasting Effect On First-Time Offenders

By Kevin Murphy

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

GALENA, Mo. - If you are young, Stone County is probably not the place to get caught with alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia.

Since the start of the year, first-time misdemeanor drug offenders ages 17 to 20 have been required to spend 4 hours in the county jail. High school students can schedule their time on weekends.

Stone County Prosecutor Matt Selby said he was breaking ground in requiring youths with no prior arrests to be jailed. But fines and community-service penalties have been ineffective, he said.

"I know that doing this is a little bit of a tough step, but I really feel we need to do something at a younger age with substance abuse," Selby said. In addition to jail time, he requires offenders to submit to up to three random drug tests.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors in Missouri and Kansas said they were not aware of any other county requiring jail time for first-time misdemeanor drug defendants. They questioned whether the penalty is fair or will be effective.

Stone County Sheriff Richard Hill said alcohol and drug use is a problem in the county, particularly because it is in a lakes area where parties are common. The county is in southwest Missouri near Branson.

Hill hopes a night in jail will open some eyes. When brought to the jail, the offender is fingerprinted, showers, changes into an orange outfit and spends 4 hours in isolation. Meals are passed through a door slot.

"This is a way they can get early insight into the path they may be heading down," Hill said. "They get a lot of time to think about what they have done."

Although it is separated from the general population of the jail, the isolation cell provides a view to the booking area. It has a cot, a stainless steel toilet and sink and is within earshot of jailhouse sounds.

"They get to hear everything that comes in, and that can be pretty disturbing at times," Hill said.

Selby, who speaks at local high schools about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, said he didn't have a specific goal in terms of reducing the number of drug and alcohol-related offenses.

"I kind of see our job as like that of a counselor or preacher," said Selby, who has five children. "You try to help them make good decisions. You just don't give up."

Selby said he decided to use the jail time for drug and alcohol offenses because abuse of either can damage lives and families and lead to other criminal activity. Most felony drug offenders abused drugs or alcohol at young ages, he said.

"You see it earlier and earlier," Selby said. He calls the new plan the Minor Offender Justice Opportunity program, or MOJO.

Punishment Questioned

Two lawyers prominent in criminal defense law in Missouri and Kansas said Selby was taking a novel approach but one that may be too sweeping. Each case and each defendant is different, they said.

"The problem is that a 'one size fits all' approach only works with socks," said St. Louis area lawyer Richard Sindel, past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Patrick Lewis, an Olathe lawyer and executive director of the Kansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said a person may fear jail less once he has been exposed to it. Jail could become 'demystified,' Lewis said.

"No, they don't want to go back, but they are not terrified of the prospect," Lewis said. The person may conclude that "jail is sure no fun, but I got caught up on my sleep -- it was no big deal," Lewis said.

Selby said the unknown nature of jail doesn't stop crime.

"If the idea that jail was scary is a deterrent, we would never have any cases," Selby said. "But the trouble is we keep getting more cases."

A panel of specialists in psychiatry, medicine, juvenile justice and other disciplines organized by the National Institutes of Health recently studied the effect of 'scare tactics' on children and adolescents.

The panel found that group detention centers, boot camps and other 'get-tough' programs do little more than provide an opportunity for delinquent youths to mix with older offenders who could exert a bad influence.

While the panel studied mainly violent offenders and did not focus on programs in which youths are jailed but kept separate from other inmates, it concluded that identifying youths as at risk for future offenses creates its own hazards.

"Labeling a child may help lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy," the panel concluded in a report released in October.

Sindel said it would be crucial for Stone County to monitor the effect of its program, which Selby and the courts plan to do.

"We will assess the feedback we are getting from defense attorneys and the community," said Stone County Associate Circuit Court Judge Alan Blankenship, who has ordered the days in jail. "We will look at our own experience to see if any problems arise and if we need any revisions."

The defendants were ordered to jail as part of plea agreements. Some of them had attorneys and some did not, officials said.

Early Feedback

So far, Selby said, reaction has been mostly positive from parents, but he noted that the program is in its early stages.

Three persons have served jail time under the program -- a 17-year-old high school student, a 19-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man, officials said.

Although the new program is aimed at younger people, the 23-year-old was given the day in jail because he was with the 19-year-old woman, Selby said.

One offender given the jail time was a no-show, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Five others are scheduled to serve time soon, said Rhonda Burk, a clerk for Selby.

None of the three offenders who served the day in jail could be reached for comment, but the high school student's mother thought the punishment was too harsh and said it upset her son, said Burk, who does interviews after the jail visits.

The teen was annoyed when he was told he did not properly mop up coffee he spilled in the cell and was upset when a jailer told him, "I hope we never you see you again," Burk said. The comment was meant to be encouraging, she said.

Burk said the young woman commented that she never wanted to return to jail.

In addition to jail time, the offenders can be called in at any time during their probation to give urine samples for drug testing, Selby said.

"In order for our laws to be effective, we have to have meaningful consequences," Selby said. "On the other hand, we also need to know if they continue to use these drugs -- and to deal with the problem."

First Glance:

Young people ages 17-20 are winding up in the Stone County jail for 4 hours if they are found guilty of misdemeanor drug and alcohol offenses.

The county prosecutor says he's trying this penalty because fines and community-service penalties have been ineffective.

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