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Rod Watson: Blame game leaves citizens stuck in justice system’s ‘revolving door’

The cases read like a point by point description of what is wrong with the criminal justice system:

• The 16-year-old had five separate armed robberies on his record, but instead of being in jail, he got another gun and killed a cab driver during one more armed robbery in 2013.

• The 25-year-old was charged in one shooting when he saw the woman he thought had fingered him to police as the shooter in a second case. The woman, in turn, suspected he had shot her mother – who was left paralyzed – in retaliation. After an altercation, the suspect – free on bail despite his gun-toting history – was shot dead by the woman’s boyfriend.

• An 18-year-old free on bail on robbery and gun charges went on a shooting spree last August at two locations, leaving one man dead and three others wounded. The dead man’s father couldn’t understand how someone already facing gun charges could be out on bail, free to shoot again.

Police, frustrated by those and other such cases, can’t understand it either.

Neither can Mayor Byron W. Brown, who has begun complaining that police are doing their job by arresting thugs but that the court system is too often "a revolving door" that puts gunmen back on the street to shoot again.

Judges, though, tell a different story – beginning with the fact that it’s election season. Politicians can scapegoat the courts by taking free shots, knowing that judicial rules preclude judges from going on the record with their side of the story.

But privately, judges point the finger right back at police and prosecutors, saying they too often come to court unprepared to proceed, leaving judges with no choice but to release the defendant.

In some instances, cases have to be dismissed because the police arrest report is not accurate, they say. In other cases, a witness may not show up.

Or police may stop a car full of people and find a gun. The district attorney tries to link the gun to one of the occupants, but the DNA analysis doesn’t come back in time for the felony hearing. A case like that has to be dismissed unless there’s a compelling reason not to, and "We don’t have the DNA results yet" is not a compelling reason, one judge said.

"It’s not these ‘liberal judges’ putting people back on the street," he said.

Judges live in the community, another pointed out, and don’t want dangerous thugs back on the streets any more than other residents do. But sometimes the dictates of the law give them no choice but to free a suspect.

"It’s generally because the police haven’t done what they’re supposed to do, or the DA is not prepared to go forward," one said, adding that he’s confident any study would show that when suspects are released, it’s almost always for one of those two reasons.

So who’s to blame?

Who are residents to hold accountable when their block is turned into a shooting gallery by a gunman who shouldn’t have been back on the streets in the first place?

Judges say it’s not their fault. Police complain about the "revolving door" but concede they have no solutions. The mayor talks about a "legislative and judicial response" but has no specifics.

But other cities do, and one answer can be summed up in the name of an old TV show: You Be the Judge.

Next week: How one city empowers citizens as court monitors.

Mayor blames Buffalo's shootings on 'revolving door' of criminals with guns

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