Since I’ve been editor of the Reporter, several people have walked into the office or called me about the jail log we publish. It happened again last week. The conversations always begin the same way.
“I don’t want my name in the jail log,” the person arrested said.
No one does. Some beg and plead and say that they will lose their jobs if their boss sees their name there. Others blame me or the newspaper for making the arrest public, even though it is a public record. They even get angry sometimes.
One young couple came directly from the jail to my office after the girlfriend bailed out the guy. He was arrested for violating his probation on another arrest.
“I’m sorry, we don’t make any exceptions,” is my usual response.
“We heard you did,” the girl said.
“Well, we don’t,” I said. “What do I tell the other people who were arrested and who will be in the jail log if I make an exception for you?”
“We won’t tell,” she said.
“Do you think that’s fair?” I asked.
Of course they do — as long as the different standard applies to them.
Some readers love that we publish the jail log. Each week the Somervell County Sheriff’s Department faxes the Reporter a list of people booked into or released from the county jail. Offense reports also are attached.
I look through the list to see if any crimes merit a separate story. Then I type in the name of the person arrested and the date, the person’s age, city of residence and a brief description of the offense.
On rare occasions if space is really tight, we may not run the jail log and I’ll combine the week’s arrests in the following week’s newspaper. If the log doesn’t run, we get phone calls. A lot of employers read it regularly to see if any of their employees are arrested. And certainly, some people read it for gossip and titillation. The jail log usually is on the list of the “most read” stories on the newspaper’s Web site.
Other readers tell us they hate the jail log printed. They think it holds people arrested up to public ridicule and unfairly paints them as guilty when, in fact, they still must be proven guilty in court.
On one hand, I sympathize with individuals who make a mistake once and get caught and have it publicized in the newspaper. On the other hand, what if someone arrested for DWI turns out to be a school bus driver? Or works at the nuclear power plant? What if a person arrested for online sexual solicitation of a minor is a coach or teacher?
Today’s front-page story about Alan Elton Light, who was indicted last week for attempted aggravated kidnapping, is a prime example. He was no stranger to having his name in the jail log. He was a repeat offender who had numerous arrests for public intoxication and family violence. As financial problems escalated, so did the severity of the offenses.
Then again, is it fair that good people who made a mistake get their names in the paper along with the ones who are repeat offenders? And who gets to judge that?
I certainly don’t feel qualified to make that judgment. If we start letting one individual get a pass and not another one, the entire process becomes tainted. Therefore, the newspaper’s policy is that we run ALL the names of people who end up in jail each week. No exceptions.
These records are public for a reason. Taxpayers and law-abiding citizens are entitled to know who is breaking the law in their community, what crimes are being committed and who is being detained in the jail and for how long. Totalitarian states lock away prisoners, often for no reason other than speaking their minds or opposing a despot. Democracies don’t – or at least, they’re not supposed to. Open records help keep it transparent.
As taxpayers, county residents also are entitled to know how safe they are and how their tax dollars are being used to fight crime in their community. Every week readers in Glen Rose and Somervell County can see who is arrested, what crimes are occurring and where. That information can be valuable.
For example, in February I noticed that many of the arrests were for family violence. Sure enough, family violence often erupts when the weather is bad – in this case, there was lots of snow that month – and people are cooped up together. The weak economy also has put financial pressure on relationships and that sometimes ignites violence between family members. I wrote a story about that trend.
It’s also been good to see that offenses involving a gun are rare. Crime in Somervell County remains low compared with larger, more metropolitan counties. It factors into why people want to leave the big city and move to Glen Rose and the county.
Since I’ve been in this job since early February, I’ve noticed that the majority of the arrests are related to alcohol use, violence against family members, traffic violations and drug possession. A lot of the arrests also are of people from outside the county.
In those four months, I’ve already begun to recognize names on the log. I’ve seen repeat offenders arrested for second and third DWIs or for family violence or for drug possession or for probation violation. They post bail, get out and do it all over again. I’ve been following them through the court system as they make plea bargains or prepare for trials. If anyone is arrested and exonerated, I’ll write about that, too.
In one unusual case, a Nepalese man who was arrested and locked up for months for online solicitation of a minor posted a $150,000 cash bond and then was deported. A judge ruled that he forfeited the cash bond, which the county received. I wrote about this on the front page last week.
Publishing the jail log also can serve as a deterrent in a small community. No one wants to see his or her name in the printed jail log. It’s embarrassing. I know that some people have been fired from their jobs. It has affected family relationships as well.
But it’s pretty simple – if you don’t want your name in the jail log, don’t get drunk in public, drink and drive, beat your wife/husband/kids, use drugs, steal, carry an unlawful weapon, solicit under-age girls for sex on the Internet, violate the terms of probation or attempt to kidnap someone.
And don’t shoot the messenger when you land in jail and then realize your name might be in the paper. If you don’t want your name to be slime, don’t do the crime.