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Bank robbery puts focus on sentencing guidelines

Last month's bank robbery in Thomson had law enforcement officials talking. Nathan Jones, who was charged in the robbery of the SunTrust near Carriage Lane shopping center on Aug. 1, had only been out of a detention center one day.

Mr. Jones was convicted of burglary before that and served 90 days in the Emanuel County Probation Detention Center. McDuffie County Sheriff's Department Maj. Ronnie Williamson said that might not have been long enough.

Convicted criminals across the state are not serving the time to which they were sentenced. Prison overcrowding is the problem. No one has figured out an easy solution.

"If they sentenced everybody to five years or 10 years, the capacity would be exceeded in a matter of months," Maj. Williamson said. "So I think it's a way to try to give people a chance to say 'OK, I'll sentence you to five years. Serve a year and do four years on probation and try to make them a productive member of society."

The problem, he added, comes when those released to serve the remainder of their time on probation commit repeat offenses, like Mr. Jones. That puts the burden for housing them on county taxpayers once again, Maj. Williamson said.

Toombs Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger Dunaway said sentencing is the function of the judicial branch, but dictating how much time is served comes under the executive branch of the state government.

"Obviously, we occasionally become frustrated when we see our sentence not carried out to the fullest, but those decisions are made on factors that we may not know about," he said. "So we just pretty much have to defer to the executive branch on that."

All those factors make it difficult to have truth in sentencing said Toombs Circuit District Attorney Dennis Sanders.

"We understand that there can't be clear truth in sentencing, and the reason it can't be is because our jails are just limited in how much we have," Mr. Sanders said. "Now if we actually had truth in sentencing, what would happen is you would see the sentences drastically reduced because the legislature would have to get involved, and the maximum for burglary might be four years instead of 20 years."

According to Judge Dunaway, judges know that and try to give longer sentences to keep the criminals incarcerated for the right amount of time. The old rule used to be that 1/3 of the sentence would be served, but that has since changed.

"The public would get upset sometimes, saying 'He gets out in five years when you gave him 15.' Well, that's what the judge wanted to give him to begin with," Mr. Sanders said.

  • See the Sept. 28 edition of The McDuffie Mirror for part two in our "truth in sentencing" series for suggested solutions to the problem.

    Web posted on Thursday, September 21, 2006

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