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Barney Fife Visits Hamilton County

By Kevin Osborne · August 13th, 2008 · Porkopolis
Rogelio Santana's story is sad and frustrating on multiple levels.

The Cincinnati Enquirer last week reported the details of how Santana, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, was wheeled away from a nursing home by relatives instead of facing charges for allegedly robbing a Westwood convenience store in November. Santana, 27, was confined to a wheelchair after he was shot and paralyzed during the robbery.

Santana was released from the hospital in December. From that time until mid-July, Hamilton County officials sent Santana to stay at a Dent nursing home until his trial date. Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. provided three deputies each day to guard Santana, at a cost of about $200,000 over the seven-month period.

Alarmed by the cost, Leis asked the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office for other options to providing the armed guards. On July 18, prosecutors asked a judge to release Santana on his own recognizance. The original judge in the case -- Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge David Davis -- was gone that day, but his replacement agreed. When Davis returned July 23, he altered Santana's bond to require that the suspect wear an electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle as a precaution.

Too late.

Santana's relatives had whisked him away from the nursing home two days earlier. His whereabouts are unknown, but Davis ordered that Santana be held on a $1 million bond if he's ever caught. Good luck with that one.

The incident was an embarrassment to prosecutors, the Sheriff's Office and the judge. While it might be mildly amusing to laugh at their bumbling, it reveals much larger problems about inefficiencies in the local criminal justice system.

In his usual knee-jerk fashion, Leis -- through a spokesman -- tried to blame the mix-up on the budget crisis facing Hamilton County and a request made by county commissioners that all departments, including the Sheriff's Office, cut their budgets by 6 percent. If he didn't have to worry about making the reductions, Leis' argument goes, the guards could have remained at the nursing home and Santana would have been available for trial.

Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees.

As County Commissioner David Pepper has rightfully pointed out, the budget problems aren't the reason for the Santana debacle. Rather, cases like this one exacerbate the budget problems in the first place.

First and foremost, why in the world wasn't this felony case tried earlier? Santana's case lingered on for seven months and seven separate continuances. He was released from the hospital Dec. 14, just three weeks after he was shot, so there's no reason the case couldn't have proceeded to trial more quickly -- particularly with all the extra costs that detaining Santana entailed.

Moreover, with the health care issues arising from the incident, it might have been more prudent merely to turn Santana over to federal immigration agents and have him deported.

Leis pushed hard for proposed sales tax increases in 2006 and 2007 that he said were necessary to build a new jail to handle overcrowding and lessen early releases of prisoners. Sensing that the numbers didn't add up, voters soundly rejected both requests.

During that same period, Leis spent $9.9 million to rent 300 jail beds each night in Butler County to underscore the "crisis," even though the beds often went unused over the 19-month period.

Until all parts of the criminal justice system begin communicating better, the public will view any request for more money with skepticism.

While taxpayers wait patiently for systemic improvements to be made, it'll be interesting to see if voters remember the poor judgment and missteps in the Santana incident the next time that Leis, Davis and Prosecutor Joe Deters seek re-election.

PORKOPOLIS TIP LINES: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or pork@citybeat.com



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