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‘Justice’ is not perfect, but can be better

The criminal justice system is not perfect. Innocent people are sometimes convicted and sentenced. Those guilty of crimes sometimes go free.

That’s the reality of a system that depends upon human judgment. Humans make mistakes.

But some of those human errors can — and should — be corrected.  A recent example in Lincoln County shows the need for improvement in the local court system. A man arrested in Brookhaven and charged with theft has been in jail for almost a year, but he has yet to be indicted by a grand jury.

That means that not only has he not been found guilty, his case hasn’t even made it far enough through the circuit court system for there to be a case. He’s in a gray area between the court system that first encountered him (city court) and the circuit court system that has yet to even assign a case number to him.

This limbo is unfair to suspects (some of whom are innocent) and it’s expensive for taxpayers who fund the jail.

The county impanels two grand juries a year, and they meet for a few days every two months or so to determine if there is probable cause for a case to go forward, District Attorney Dee Bates said.

“We do not go to the grand jury until we have a completed file,” Bates said. “That way you can tell the grand jury everything — and they need to know everything. The grand jury is not just a rubber stamp. We tell them all the evidence the state has, and what it’s lacking.”

If the case is lacking sufficient evidence, Bates does not present it to a grand jury. When that happens, suspects sometimes are forced to wait in jail. Some can bond out, but some can’t come up with the cash to be released. So they wait while law enforcement continues to build a case against them, even if it takes a year or more.

Some of these suspects will eventually be indicted and found guilty. Some, however, will not be indicted, meaning the grand jury did not believe there was enough evidence for the case to go forward. They might be charged again in the future, or they might go free.

If there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute a suspect, turn them loose. Law enforcement can always arrest them again when more evidence is discovered.

Imagine sitting in jail for a year waiting for a case to go to a grand jury, then being told the jury didn’t find sufficient evidence to indict you. You can leave a free man/woman, but you’ve spent time in jail for a crime you were not convicted of (and possibly are innocent of).

That’s not justice. Those accused of crimes deserve better. Taxpayers deserve better.