Panel examines possible solutions to public intoxication problem

The Intoxicated Street People Task Force hosted a legal panel to examine ways to alleviate the problems associated with public intoxication in Winslow.

Winslow City Attorney Dale Patton, Police Chief Stephen Garnett and Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler accepted the invitation of the task force to field questions from meeting attendees.

In response to a question of whether perpetrators of a series of misdemeanors can be charged with a more serious offense, Patton assured task force members that this is possible.

“Under ARS 13-604(c), individuals who have been convicted of three or more Class 1 misdemeanors can be charged with a Class 6 felony.”

The exception to this is that the misdemeanors must not be traffic offenses—except in the case of DUI offenses, which have their own built in progression in sentencing.

Patton cited as an example an individual who has been repeatedly convicted of simple assault. In this case, the suspect could be charged with simple assault, fourth offense, as a class 6 felony.

It would fall on the police officer or deputy to point out to the County Attorney’s office that an individual has been charged repeatedly with the same crime—a fact identified when a person’s criminal history is ran.

The benefits would include longer jail sentences, larger fines and longer periods of probation, Patton said.

There is a flip side to this however.

“How will this affect city funding to incarcerate these individuals, especially if there are health-related issues?” Patton asked.

Butler responded that where misdemeanor charges are upgraded, individuals now charged with a felony would be moved from the County Jail—but he shares budgetary concerns as well. This past fiscal year, Navajo County ended up paying $300,000 more than was budgeted for health care services given to incarcerated individuals.

“There was $200,000 in the budget, and we ended up spending $500,000.

The fact of the matter is that before a person can be booked into either the city or county jail, they must receive a medical clearance.

“If I transport highly intoxicated individuals to the hospital, I have taken on major liabilities that the city can’t afford,” Garnett said.

Further, arresting officers face the very real problem that people can be unwilling to put their names to a complaint or to testify in court. A resident may be tired of having people fighting in the alley behind their house, but unless he or she is willing to back up arresting officers, there is a very real chance that there will be no charges filed, panel members indicated.

“We prefer to have a victim or a witness, because unless an officer personally witnessed the act, we can only base a complaint on the information received from either a victim or witness–if we don’t have that, what do we base our complaint on?” Garnett clarified later.

Though Garnett is hesitant to arrest someone on hearsay, his department will issue a citation to the individual and allow him or her to move on.

The fact is, it is up to the County Attorney’s discretion whether to prosecute or not, Garnett said.

All three members of the panel stressed that their intention was not to criticize County Attorney Mel Bowers—and explained the difficulties of his position.

Dale Patton has served the City as a County Attorney in the past, and spoke from experience.

“The County Attorney must make a lot of decisions based on [his department’s] abilities. He must make a realistic assessment of what resources he has available, is there the likelihood of conviction in front of a jury. You want to make sure that you have a conviction.”

This is not to say that a County Attorney will never charge someone without guarantee of a conviction, Patton added.

“The County Attorney can prosecute if he sees another legitimate purpose,” Patton said. “One of these factors is deterrence.”

People can be deterred from committing a crime by seeing that another individual was prosecuted for that action—and although a conviction was not obtained, the public will see that he still went to trial, Patton added.

Here, Butler interjected that public safety comes first over financial concerns and budgetary restrictions.

Another popular solution proposed—the establishment of a public intoxication ordinance— is not only unconstitutional, but ARS 36-2031specifically prohibits such an ordinance, according to Patton.

“The legislature has ruled that intoxication is not a crime, but an illness. These people are suffering from a disease,” Garnett added.

There are, however, other offenses associated with this population that will allow police and sheriff personnel to make an arrest. These include assault, indecent exposure, and public nuisance.

Nor is protective custody (PC) the answer, as 24 hours is the maximum period by statute that a person can be held. And, Butler pointed out, these 24 hours are when most highly intoxicated people are the sickest—further increasing the medical liability to the city or county.

Courts do have discretion to order community service or treatment, according to Patton. But once again, there is the question of finances.

Though individuals can be ordered to community service—a program that does promise success—there again is the need for manpower to supervise this effort.

“There is the possibility that volunteers in the community can be used to supervise this effort. The service must be documented,” Butler said.

Further, as pointed out by panel members, community service cannot support private individuals, therefore residents hoping to see offenders cleaning up damage or littering done by intoxicated street people will be disappointed.

“There is the impression out there that the police have the authority to make them clean up after themselves, but we don’t,” Garnett said. “Even where we arrive on the scene and see someone throwing down trash, we can make that request, but we cannot make them.”

The Probation Department is another piece of the sentencing puzzle—it is this department that prepares the Pre-Sentencing report, which is strongly considered by the judge before delivering a sentence.

Members of the ISPTF were encouraged by all three guests, and told that organizations like this and MADD can influence the legal system.

“I would advise you to talk to Chief of Police, the Sheriff, the Probation Department, the County Attorney and the judges and educate them,” Patton encouraged.

Garnett, Butler and Patton all agreed that a treatment center is needed in Winslow, but this too is a difficult solution. Can the City of Winslow or Navajo County afford the expense, and as Garnett pointed out, there is the real risk that these individuals will not successfully complete treatment in their first attempt.

According to Ursula Baker, the Winslow Guidance Associates director, alcoholism is a very difficult disease to bring into remission, and only one out of five individuals succeed at their first visit to a treatment center.

“These people need help, and jail is not the answer,” Butler said.

The Intoxicated Street People Task Force will hold its next meeting on Tuesday, July 6 at 7:00 p.m. at the Fire Station, located at 215 Taylor Avenue.

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