Local Republicans are crying foul about the public backlash against a judge's decision to impose a $1 million bond for a suspect accused of stealing $21.64. The facts, however, don't support the GOP spin machine's claims in defending the judge.
Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Richard Bernat made national headlines about how he handled Gary Weaver's case. Weaver appeared March 27 on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge after police arrested him the previous day at a motel for cutting himself with a razor. Reports say Weaver was depressed about recent deaths in his family.
After Weaver pleaded guilty, Bernat sentenced him to one day in jail, which he'd already served after being locked up the night before.
Then the case took a Kafka-esque turn. It was discovered that Weaver had an active arrest warrant from a 1990 theft case. The warrant stemmed from an incident in which he bought various items with what appeared to be rolls of dimes that actually contained mostly pennies.
The 1990 case was charged as a felony because Weaver had a previous theft conviction, and the judge at that time set a $1 million bond.
Bernat kept the original bond amount and sent Weaver back to jail.
Once the oddball incident was picked up by the media, it quickly spread. Lefty MSNBC news commentator Keith Olbermann even named Bernat as a runner-up in his "Worst Person in the World" feature.
After the uproar, Bernat's fellow Republicans began circling the wagons. The judge kept Weaver in jail for his own good, they said, because he was worried about Weaver's mental state.
Sorry, but that doesn't wash.
At Weaver's hearing, Bernat asked if there were any mental health issues he should be concerned about. The public defender representing Weaver and the assistant county prosecutor both replied, "No."
One day after the hearing, on a Friday, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters told The Cincinnati Enquirer, "It's a bit silly. The judge must have been having a bad day ... we need jail space for real criminals."
The following Monday, another judge released Weaver on his own recognizance.
Further, if Bernat truly had been concerned about Weaver's mental state, he could have ordered a psychological evaluation. He didn't.
Shortly after the brouhaha, the non-profit Justice Policy Institute issued a report that found Hamilton County ranked 28th out of the nation's 50 largest county jails for its incarceration rate. About one out of every 500 county residents was in jail during 2006.
Part of the problem is judges setting high bonds for minor crimes, the report added. It recommended creating alternative programs for non-violent offenders.
Judicial insiders say there's an unofficial rule among many judges that they won't undo the bond amounts set by their colleagues, even if they don't make sense or the public suffers.
Let's be clear: Judges must follow the law, but they're also expected to use their judgment in certain areas where they're granted discretion, like in setting bonds and in most sentencing matters.
Cases like Weaver's show even judges can have bad judgment.
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