Hard Criminals: Soft Sentences, Part I

By: Ryan Famuliner Email
By: Ryan Famuliner Email

St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak is trying to make a big change to the way county judges get on the bench.

Next week, he plans to ask state legislators to end the merit system in the county, making county judges elected rather than appointed.

St. Joseph County and Lake County are the only two in the state that still appoint judges, and Dvorak says that ultimately amounts to a lifetime appointment.

To hear what St. Joseph County Judge Roland Chamblee has to say about the elected vs. appointed judges issue, watch the extended interview above.

In a letter sent to the local F.O.P. asking for support, Dvorak wrote:

"This is the biggest push and/or support we've ever had and if we're hoping to ever see things change in the county court system, this could be the lightning strike opportunity."

And it's been a hot debate for some time now: are judges too lenient?

Law enforcement officers say yes, and they say it's making their job more difficult, and the streets unsafe.

Meanwhile, one judge says he is not convinced harsher sentences are the answer.

‘Lock them up and throw away the key" is an old cliché, and one county judge says that approach may just feed the fire.

But it's what law enforcement officers would like to see more of.

Officers say they are happy with some of the judges - but with others, they’re not even close to satisfied.

“We don’t want to point fingers and say we're blaming you, but it’s a team effort and there are only a few members of the team playing, and that's not acceptable. It shouldn’t be to any officer and it shouldn’t be to any citizen,” said Scott Ruszkowski, a South Bend police officer, and spokesman for the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Ruszkowski says the difference is so severe; officers can't help but follow cases.

“On behalf of every police officer, we do hope for specific judges on specific cases and that's not pointing a finger at one judge or a couple of judges, it’s just our situation,” Ruszkowski said.

Some--Ruszkowski says--will give sentences he thinks the defendants deserve, and others won't.

We spoke with County Judge Roland Chamblee about this perceived difference.

“If I gave 4 judges in this building the same criminal pre-sentence report, would you end up with 4 of the same sentences? Probably not. Would you end up with sentences that were in a general realm? I think probably,” Chamblee said.

He says under the current system, differing sentences are inevitable, when judges are granted discretion in sentencing.

Meanwhile, police say judges should always come down hard on dangerous criminals.

“We feel that especially for violent or sexual offenses that the maximum sentence should be given,” Ruszkowski said.

Chamblee disagrees.

“I'll also tell you that the legislature obviously doesn't agree, because if they did the legislature would say, for armed robbery, you'd receive whatever the maximum is 20 years, they don’t say that in terms of violence,” Chamblee said.

But police say they're tired of seeing the same faces.

“It’s frustrating you're called to a house, you've heard the address numerous times before you hear the name you've heard it numerous times before. On the way to the call you’re rolling your eyes,” Ruszkowski said.

The faces of former convicts like Jerome Jenkins, Andrew Patterson, and Daniel Groves.

Their criminal records would make for a solid afternoon of reading: each has been booked at the county jail between 20 and 40 times.

They've been in and out on numerous offenses, some from as far back as the 1990's. And all three continue to find themselves in handcuffs, now facing some of their toughest charges.

Jenkins is facing charges for a robbery in connection to a drowning at Indian Lakes apartments last year.

Patterson's facing a string of felony robbery charges--at banks and gas stations this past December and January.

Groves was back in court this month, re-arrested for murder charges from shootings on Labor Day in 1995, that left one person dead and three injured.

Police hope charges will stick on individuals like these, but Ruszkowski says if they don't stick, it can be aggravating.

“That’s a lot of topic of conversation, and it's no surprise, you kind of don’t even ask who the judge or judges were when you come back and you get a not guilty or you get the minimum sentence, or some ridiculous fine or community service,” Ruszkowski said.

But Chamblee says law enforcement, and victims will always want a harsher sentence, in the same way a defendant would want a more lenient one.

“I have a great respect for law enforcement. They have a tough, tough, job; but they're law enforcement. They have the position to protect the community, enforce the laws, the judges I think are somewhere in between. We are the gatekeepers,” Chamblee said.

And Chamblee says, each "gatekeeper" has to do what they think is right.

“The reality is almost everyone will come out of the Department of Corrections… So, we can build bigger prisons, so we can put away more people for longer, and if there's not attempt to rehabilitate them or make an attempt for them to get better, I think you just made meaner criminals,” Chamblee said.

He says that's why he often uses "split sentences," giving time, and probation, instead of just a longer sentence.

“If you can show me that just being hard and unyielding is more effective in reducing crime, well then I’d have to look at the numbers and say well I'm doing it softer or wrong,” Chamblee said.

Judge Chamblee also says he's been told the word in the African-American community is that if they're assigned to his court, they'll have an easy time.

He says there are plenty of African-Americans and criminals of all races he sentenced to jail that wouldn't agree. But, he says if someone could prove he was more lenient to any group, he'd be open to re-evaluating his sentencing techniques.

This is only the first in a series of special reports: Hard Criminals, Soft Sentences. In part two, we'll look at the emotional effect cases can have on victims, and how judges deal with the issue.

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