To ‘stay’ or not to ‘stay’

Judge Thomas Godzala (pictured), who is one of two judges presiding in Morrison County Court, recently met with the Morrison County Commissioners to address these and other questions.

The second Morrison County District Judge Scherer was on rotation the day of the meeting .

“Punishment and rehabilitation are two reasons fines and jail time are given to those who commit crime,” explained Judge Godzala.

“Other important reasons include public safety, hearing the victim, and to serve as a deterrent so they won’t do it again.

“When it comes to jail time, defendants always get stays because that’s our hammer over their head. It encourages rehabilitation and makes them pay their fines,” said Godzala.

Staying all or part of a fine encourages the same thing, the Judge shared. “If they miss one payment, they’re back in court and risk any stayed jail time and more fines.”

By the same token,“good time” encourages cooperation among prisoners.

“That’s how we control the prison population,” Godzala added.

“Jail isn’t always the best tool,” Godzala stated. “The best thing is education. Some defendants have no idea what they’ve done is wrong.”

Judge Godzala said he takes into consideration whether the defendant is a first-time offender or back in court for the second time or more and whether the defendant can afford the fine or not, among other things.

Pre-sentence investigations contain loads of information on defendants appearing in court, including juvenile records, Godzala said.

What about all the stays on jail time, was among the first questions the commissioners posed to the judge.

“If a man is a good husband and father but made one mistake, do we put him in jail?” the Judge questioned back.

In Godzala’s view, and based on cases he has seen, the ones who are hurt most by stiff sentencing are the man’s wife and children, and sometimes taxpayers.

“If the man is the sole provider, or even if both spouses work but the income of both is needed, such as is the case with many, do we put them in jail so they can’t work and make their payments?” Godzala responded. “Many times this leads to the family requiring county assistance. I’ve seen families lose their homes,” Godzala related.

Commissioner Don Meyer questioned the work release program, stating some people think it is not a bad deal for a prisoner, who only spends his “time” nights and weekends.

But concern for the defendant’s family as well as county taxpayers is precisely why this judge believes firmly in the work release program.

The Sentence to Serve Program (STS) allows prisoners one day off for every 32 hours worked. They are paid $5 per hour.

“STS is for those who are unemployed and can’t pay their fines,” Godzala told the Record. “STS has saved the county a ton of money,” he added.

There are low income guidelines for those in the community at large who are allowed to benefit from the program as well. “We want STS to help those who really need it,” he said.

An evaluation for the need of treatment is a part of almost every sentence Godzala gives, he said. “Besides alcohol or chemical evaluations, there’s gambling and theft addictions and more,” he said.

“Probably 90-plus percent of the time there is a correlation between alcohol and drugs and crime,” the Judge further explained. “Before we can lower the chances of them committing another crime, the addiction has got to be stopped.”

Commissioner Bill Block raised the issue of recent legislation that changed a fourth DWI in 10 years to a felony with state prison time, while state guidelines suggest counties keep them in the county jails. Judges do need to stay within sentencing guidelines set by the state.

“The state should reimburse us then,” Block said. “They should be over there and we’re keeping them here.”

According to both Godzala and County Prosecutor Conrad Freeburg, the legislature politically got the benefit of both deals: “They’re sounding tough, but in reality, keeping them in the county jails for about six months.”

Sheriff Michel Wetzel commented, “Out of 81 prisoners, nine could have gone to prison. We’ve got a couple of people on the floor right now (referring to the jail currently being over capacity). We’ve got a real problem here.”

Prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, the victim, the public, the county and taxpayers—each want something different, the judge related. “If everyone is dissatisfied, I know I’m doing a good job because I’m somewhere in the middle,” Godzala responded to the situation. “I can’t please everyone; I’ve got to do what I think is the right thing.”

County Administrator Tim Houle concluded the meeting by responding to that comment. He compared all the competing interests to a broad patchwork quilt.

“The square we need to contend with is county costs, and we ask that you keep that in mind with the rest,” Houle said.

After the meeting, Houle shared another thought with the Record. “People tend to look for simple solutions to these kinds of problems but they are really complex,” he said. “State budget cuts are going to really cause trouble…I see it like there’s a rubber band and 12 people are holding it, all pulling. Sometime it’s going to snap. It’s just a matter of who’s going to get snapped the hardest.”

As far as public opinion regarding stiffer penalties for crime, Houle believes it’s an “ebb and flow.”

“Right now, we hear ‘lock ‘em up.’ But if we were to put up a bond to raise $3 million for a new jail, people would suddenly start to explore more creative solutions.”

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