Jacksonville to consider new municipal court program
by Laura Gaddy
Jul 25, 2013 | 2856 views |  0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
First-time offenders could soon be more likely to get a second chance when they go to municipal court in Jacksonville.

At the urging of Municipal Judge Joe Maloney, the City Council is considering a program that would give qualifying first-time offenders a second chance at a clean record. Through the program, defendants charged with some crimes would have the chance to enter a guilty plea, pay a fee and agree to certain terms in exchange for a clear record.

If the program is successfully completed, a judge could dismiss the case, which would, in effect, restore a first-time offender’s record. If defendants fail to comply with the terms of the agreement, they could still face sentencing, said Barry Matson, the deputy director of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association.

As a long-time district attorney, Matson served as a prosecutor in Talladega County and is familiar with such programs, which are known as pretrial diversion programs.

When the option was extended to municipal court this spring, it was also extended to district attorneys throughout the state through the passage of a separate bill.  Officials are developing a database with the state program to log each person who takes part in the programs.

That database, which is expected to become operational next month, can be used by city prosecutors and district attorneys to be certain the same person isn’t processed through pretrial diversion programs multiple times, Matson said.

If passed, the resolution would formalize steps the judge and city prosecutor Richard Rhea already take to clear some first-time offenders’ records, but it would give the municipal court judge more guidance, Maloney said. That’s because it would require officials to make a list of charges that qualify.

“I want guidance,” Maloney told the council Monday. “I don’t really want discretion. I like to treat everybody the same.”

The city could, for example, decide that people charged with violent offenses don’t qualify for the program.

By formalizing the program, the city would also be able to charge participants for admittance and to give every qualifying offender a shot at a clean record, Matson said.

“The thing that must be in place is fairness,” Matson said. “It should be available to everyone on an equal footing.”

Maloney said he made the request in response to a new state law passed in May that gives cities the authority to set up such programs.

The fee defendants would pay to participate is a key element of the program, and Rhea said it’s unknown how much money the fee would generate.

A court representative said court officials would like to give 50 percent of the money to police for vehicle maintenance and equipment. The officials would also like to split the remaining funds between the city’s general fund and court offices.

Maloney said they don’t want to turn court into a money-making business, but they would like for it to be self-sustaining.

“I think we ought to have a formal program and a formal procedure,” Rhea said.

Maloney said he thinks the city should look to modify an existing resolution used by another Alabama city to fit Jacksonville.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Maloney said.

Maloney provided a copy of a similar ordinance drafted by the city of Hoover and asked the council to review it. The council could vote on the item at a future meeting.

Through similar programs the municipal judges can require the defendant to take part in remedial activities, such a drug rehab or to pursue a GED. The judge could also restrict the defendant from leaving the state or to pay child support, in addition to any number of other requirements, Matson said.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.

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