When the rule rules common sense suffers
By SUE CARLTON
Published February 27, 2006
Michael Blankenship missed his son's funeral.
Before you hear the story of how that happened, you should know that Blankenship, a 23-year-old Hillsborough County man, has been arrested over the years on charges such as theft, misdemeanor marijuana possession, burglary. Maybe not a violent thug, but not an angel, either.
He was on probation for breaking someone's tail lights, a case that started out as a felony but was reduced to a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief.
Last month, according to court testimony, Blankenship showed up 10 days early to see his probation officer. He told her his 1-month-old son, Michael Blankenship II, had died in the hospital after problems involving his lungs. And he told her that if he took a urine test, which is a general requirement of probation, the result would be "dirty," meaning he would test positive for drugs.
He knew it was no excuse, he later told a judge, but he used marijuana because he was "under a lot of stress." He told the probation officer he also had taken his wife's prescription Vicodin.
He had with him a knife that he used for work, according to court testimony, which is also not allowed under probation rules. The probation officer said she had gotten "anonymous calls" that Blankenship had been drinking and using drugs.
To people who don't spend time around jailhouses and courtrooms, all this might sound pretty bad. In reality, a world of difference exists between serious probation violations - like getting arrested for another crime - and what are called "technical" violations, like testing positive for drugs. Other factors are worth considering before you slap on the handcuffs, like how serious the original crime was, or how well the defendant is doing on probation otherwise.
In the old days, Blankenship's probation officer would have had some discretion in whether to find him in violation. Zero tolerance changed that.
The policy, previously applied to only the most serious offenders, was strengthened after the 2004 rape and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia at the hands of a probation violator. Now, anyone who breaks a rule of his probation will be reported to a judge, who will consider arrest. Probation officers also make arrests on the spot.
That day, Blankenship pleaded his case to his probation officer, who happened to be visibly pregnant. He later said she told him she was human, and that she felt for him. Then he was arrested and sent to jail.
So on the day of the funeral, he stood before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke in jail clothes, asking if he could get out in time to attend services for his son.
The judge was sympathetic. She agreed to let him out, though there was no hope he'd get through the release process in time for the funeral. Sure enough, he didn't get out until the next day.
To the probation officer, Judge Behnke expressed frustration about the zero tolerance policy that led to Blankenship's on-the-spot arrest. She questioned why, in a misdemeanor case involving a personal tragedy, it hadn't instead been given to a judge to consider.
"You know," the judge said, "there's zero and then there is zero, and I don't get that big zero. You know, some things are more important than others."
She found Blankenship guilty of violating his probation and sentenced him to time served.
Jo Ellyn Rackleff with the Department of Corrections in Tallahassee called Blankenship's personal situation "very, very sad" but said the probation officer did her duty. "We have instructed our officers to be very, very cautious," she said.
Maybe you don't have a lot of sympathy for a guy like Michael Blankenship. Maybe you think he made his own bed and deserves to sit in jail, even for a technical violation. Or maybe, like me, you think he could have benefited from a little empathy.
The problem is when a policy, not a person, makes the decision. Blankenship, and every other defendant who passes through a courtroom, deserves to at least be heard.
--Sue Carlton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org