Article published May 3, 1993
Inmates crowd jail on weekends
It's not the ideal weekend getaway, but each Friday scores of people check into the Spartanburg County Jail for a two-day visit. The so-called "weekenders" have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to jail, but given the option of serving their time on weekends.
In theory, the weekenders are given the accommodating jail sentences so they can maintain jobs during the week and remain productive citizens. But in reality, the weekender program is an administrative nightmare that leaves the jail so overcrowded inmates sleep on cots in the lobby of the jail annex. Virtually every weekend, jail Warden Larry Powers is forced to make an emergency suspension of the state's minimum jail standards, which are violated by the overflowing population of inmates.
State Department of Corrections regulations allow Powers to suspend the minimum standards for up to three days, and when the weekenders check out on Sunday the emergency is over. "It's a major problem here because we just have so many of them," Powers said. "I'm sure we violate fire codes. We just have to do the best we can with what we've got."
In Cherokee County, the 12 to 15 people serving weekend sentences don't even spend the night in jail because of a lack of space. They come to the jail at 8 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m., said Cherokee County Sheriff Bill Blanton.
In Spartanburg, about 60 people serve weekend sentences each week, but 100 more who have not been showing up were recently ordered back to court to explain why. Twenty-four of those failed to appear in court, and bench warrants were issued for their arrest. Of the 76 who appeared in court, nine were continued on weekends and 67 were given straight jail time, according to a jail report.
The excuses for missing a weekend are often as elaborate as a school child's explanation for not turning in a homework assignment on time. Doctor's excuses are one of the most popular. One man was sick on Fridays for three weeks in a row, but each week he was well enough by Monday to go to work. Another man had written notes from three different hospital emergency rooms, including one in Gaffney and another in North Carolina, explaining why he missed successive weeks at the jail.
There have been times when people have shown up drunk, and they were arrested and charged with public drunkenness. "It's just a nightmare to manage, as far as getting the people to come, listening to all their excuses and deciding which ones are valid," Powers said. Some judges are reluctant to give weekend sentences except in extreme circumstances.
Spartanburg Circuit Judge E.C. Burnett III rarely gives weekend time. "To me, it minimizes the punishment to let them do it on weekends. I felt like it might have a better impact on an individual defendant to have them serve the full time as provided by statute," he said. Most of the people doing weekend time are those who have been convicted of multiple driving under the influence or driving under suspension offenses. Other convictions for weekenders include possession of marijuana and habitual offender.
Powers agreed that weekend time tends to lessen the impact of a sentence, especially when people who miss weekends just get more weekend time tacked on to their original sentence. "To make the system work, there has to be some punishment aspect, there has to be some teeth and people have to suffer the consequences of their actions," he said.
But Circuit Judge Derham Cole said weekend sentences can be appropriate, especially if they keep a person from losing an opportunity to have an income and support his or her children. "Anytime you have irresponsible people, you're going to have problems. I don't see that a weekend program has any more problems than a regular prison or a probation office," said Cole, who currently serves as administrative judge for the 7th Judicial Circuit.
Powers and the judges agree, however, that the problems with the weekender program have been reduced since an administrative order from Judge Burnett took effect last November. That order sets out strict guidelines for weekenders and how violations should be dealt with. Still, Burnett said he would like to see an alternative to weekend sentences. Along with Powers, he has been a strong supporter of a home-detention program that would rely on computer equipment to monitor offenders in their homes. The County Council refused last year to appropriate the roughly $100,000 it would take to buy the equipment. But Burnett said that considering the high cost of incarceration, the one-time investment would save money in the long run.