Now that a half-dozen train-hopping trespassers have had their 38 days in jail, and 15 minutes of fame, what can we learn from this episode?
If nothing else, let’s hope the county can figure out how to speed up hearings for people charged with minor crimes.
To recap, the six 20-somethings were arrested back in March when a CSX railroad police officer caught them hiding in a freight train that had stopped in Grovetown. The separate groups of young people had climbed aboard in Atlanta, with the intention of getting a free ride to Savannah for St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
(At least one of them started a little early; a young woman was so intoxicated that Grovetown officers had difficulty rousing her to get her off the train.)
All six, including two with extensive criminal records, were charged with hiding on a train for the purpose of stealing a ride. The misdemeanor requires a bond of $1,100 for those arrested, and the vagabonds had no money or local connections to raise bail.
As a result, taxpayers gave them room and board while they awaited a court hearing.
And waited. And waited. See, Columbia County, unlike many other large counties, doesn’t have a state court; that function is handled by superior court judges. Misdemeanor court is held just once a month, and the hoboes just missed the March court date. So without money to pay their bond, all six had to sit in jail at our expense – and at Animal Services’ expense, since their dogs also were being housed – while awaiting the April session.
Once they appeared and entered guilty or nolo contendre pleas, Superior Court Judge Jim Blanchard gaveled them out the door for time served. They turned in their jail scrubs, put back on their unlaundered clothes that had been sealed in brown-paper property bags for more than a month, and were released to the waiting paws of their pets.
Those who contend they shouldn’t have been arrested at all are being unrealistic. Train-hopping not only is dangerous, it’s trespassing. You can bet if one of those train-hoppers had been injured, CSX would be fending off an ambulance-chaser. CSX must be aggressive in keeping trespassers off their property, and in prosecuting those they catch.
But it seems downright inhumane, and unquestionably is a bad deal for taxpayers, to house anyone in jail for more than a month just to wait for a hearing on a minor charge – especially one that’s likely to have a penalty even shorter than the jail time spent waiting to go to court.
The county might be ready to move toward creation of a state court. In the meantime, the circuit’s superior court judges who set the calendars should find a way to add more court dates to avoid inhumane and unnecessarily long stays in jail for minor offenses – and unneeded major expense to taxpayers.