Every day, a human tide floods Metro General Sessions Court. By 9 a.m. one day last month, dozens of defendants clutched citations in hand as they joined a slow-moving line in the stifling courthouse foyer. This conveyor belt of sorts would eventually deposit them in the courtrooms of Judges Michael F. Mondelli, Dianne Turner and Sue McKnight Evans.
Most of the cases were misdemeanors: driving under the influence, domestic violence, driving without a license, simple possession, criminal trespass or missing court. Others were felonies scheduled for probable cause hearings before being sent on to the grand jury. Around 9:15 a.m., the court clerks sounded off roll call for scheduled cases.
Afterward, the individual courtrooms were swamped — scores of similar complaints, scores of similar outcomes. A judge appeared to grow disinterested as proceedings wore on, as monotonous as the bleak beige courtroom walls. Even some offenders fell asleep on the hard wooden benches, having waited hours to be heard. They were awakened by court security officers, who promptly removed them from the courtroom as loved ones and relatives jostled nearby.
After defendants had passed through this purgatory once, one would think they would never put themselves in a position to return. Yet many do.
"We do see a lot of repeat offenders," says Bob Green, director of the Nashville General Sessions Probation Office. "I would guess that our percentage is about 15 to 20 percent repeat offenders." The problem court officials face is how to keep them from returning.
Faced with swollen prisons that cycle criminals in and out, Nashville court officials, like others across the nation, have begun to put more emphasis on alternatives to jail time. These include batterers' courses for domestic violence offenders, victim impact panels to make offenders understand the effect of their crimes, and GED classes for those who never completed high school. For many court officials now, the aim of their work is less to punish offenders and more to change their behavior.
"That's really the job of probation officers across this country, to change behavior," Green says. "Really, it's the job of everyone in the system. These programs — it's a conversation with offenders to change behaviors, trying to get them to give up what they were doing before. That is the greatest challenge of anyone working in the system, is getting that population to make better decisions than they did in the past."
Oftentimes, Green explains, the crucial factor is employment. To get and keep a job, convicted offenders must acquire their GEDs — a primary reason why courts often prescribe educational or job training programs as part of sentencing.
But finding post-conviction work is an enormous struggle for many, according to Jennifer Dusenberry, who handles anywhere from 10 to 20 clients a day as an assistant public defender in General Sessions.
"We all think, 'It's not a felony, people will still hire you,' " Dusenberry says. "That's not true. Theft convictions will make it hard for you to get a job. These convictions follow people. You get one conviction, making it hard for you to get work, and it can kind of just spiral, and you just become part of this."
On one recent day the Scene spent in General Sessions, the suspension of an offender's driver's license was a common punishment. According to Dusenberry, one of the more common tasks for public defenders is dealing with the never-ending cycle of driver's license cases.
"There are hundreds of ways to lose your driver's license, one of which is not paying your court costs for a year," she says. "It starts spiraling with, 'Take this class, get the charge dismissed, take this other class.' And then you're looking at jail time and suspended sentences, and you're racking up court costs for all of them. Think about what it would be like to not have a license. You have kids and a job, and the only way to get it back is paying a bunch of money. So you have to go to your job, but you'll have difficulty getting there if you're unable to drive."
These seemingly trivial offenses can wreak havoc on families. In early July, Denise King came into the Nashville public defenders' office seeking help for her incarcerated husband, Leslie. He faces his ninth charge within a four-year period for violating a driving suspension.
The court process is a sort of catch-22 for people like Leslie King. As is the case with many misdemeanors, King had his driver's license suspended but he still needed to get to his fast-food job. He chose to drive anyway, to make his shift. That led to his incarceration, and a more severe license suspension.
Now Leslie King faces rising court costs and a $25,000 bond. On top of that, Denise King says, because of his incarceration, he will likely lose his minimum-wage job. For people like the Kings, the system leaves them unable to break a cycle of repeat offenses.
To help those who fall into the General Sessions meat grinder, its probation office plays a key role in reintegration and reform, overseeing what Green estimates as nearly 4,200 offenders on any given day. But he says that task is complicated by a Tennessee law that prevents probation officers from adding conditions like completing behavior courses, enrollment in drug treatment or obtaining a GED.
"You need your GED, but I can't make you get it," Green says. "I can refer you, but I can't do anything about it if you tell me no. You would have to violate your probation, and we'd have to take you back to court. A lot of things do get accomplished up front, but then you have things that pop up along the road that we can't do anything about. Although I have a very good staff — they'll be able to get you into the programs you need without having to look for a violation."
Among the most needed programs are those dealing with alcohol. In one July session the Scene attended, DUIs ranked among the most common misdemeanor charges. First-time offenders in the courtroom that day were given suspended sentences and 11 months and 29 days of probation. Offenders were informed that to avoid jail time, they had to fulfill certain requirements, including attendance of a victim impact panel.
The panel in Nashville is organized by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. It consists of testimony from several victims of drunk driving, who tell convicted DUI offenders how their crimes can have serious, often mortal consequences. That afternoon convicted drunk drivers found themselves face to face with Juan Molina, who told the court-ordered audience how his teenage son, Mike, was killed by someone just like them. He was followed by Phaedra Marriott-Olsen, a MADD program specialist. A drunk driver left her a paraplegic and her young friend with severe brain damage. That kind of testament makes an effective deterrent, she believes.
"Well, 98 percent of surveys given at the end of our program are positive," Marriott-Olsen says. "Respondents talk about how this program helped them more than any other program they've been through in the criminal justice system. When it comes to scare tactics, we know that's not the reality. This is just true — it's straight from the heart, and our volunteers are people who truly want to make an impact."
On the other hand, just one year ago, Molina lost his older brother in a car crash. His brother was killed after getting behind the wheel of his own car while drunk.
"If he wouldn't listen to me, will you?" he asks the silent room. "I don't know."
Granted, the maximum sentence for the misdemeanor offenses General Sessions hears is 11 months and 29 days in jail, followed by 11 months and 29 days of probation. (From there it may scale down from six-month sentences all the way to 30 days.) But repeat offenders can quickly become stuck within the system and rack up many years of incarceration from misdemeanors.
"You can start to see people just cycling in and out," Dusenberry says. "And you see people who are basically serving life sentences in a series of misdemeanor sentences."
Repeat offenses have to be stopped at the individual level, Bob Green of the probation office says.
"Are there things in society that negatively impact [offenders]? Sure," Green says. "But the root cause of repeat offenses always lies with the offender. It's all about the choices that you make, and you can make that choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing every day of the week."
Still others point to root causes of crime — poverty, education, employment and substance addiction — that they say need more attention.
"There are some familiar faces who come into our office seeking counsel," Dusenberry says. "I don't think a lot of that is going to change until we can do more to alleviate a lot of the sources that led to this criminal activity. ... I always tell people that I believe in personal responsibility, but I do recognize that we're all waking up in the morning making choices, but we're not all picking from the same set of choices."