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Citrus judge aims to assist people living on probation

The plan is being praised by criminal justice experts for its innovation.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Circuit Judge Craig C. Villanti looked at the five people sitting before him and smiled, pleased and a little surprised at what he was seeing and hearing.

Two months ago, the judge had sentenced these same five people to probation for crimes ranging from drug possession to dealing in stolen property. He didn't like their attitude then, and he thought they would probably be back in front of him someday for violating their probation.

But Villanti didn't want to give up on them. If he could just help them make it successfully through the first few months of their probation, he reasoned, maybe they would increase the chances that they would one day become productive, law-abiding citizens.

So he came up with a plan that is being praised by criminal justice experts and local lawyers for its innovation and noble intentions: Villanti set aside time in his busy calendar for the county's first-ever probation review hearings.

"It's kind of like being on a diet," the judge said in an interview before the hearing. "Get them through the first few months and they'll be fine. Society is going to be a whole lot better if these people succeed."

He wasn't sure what to expect when he took his seat behind the bench Thursday to conduct the probation review hearings for the first time.

Then he saw the smiles, and heard the five probationers talk about how they had found jobs and were beginning to save money now that they are spending all of their free time at home.

"I feel a lot better today than I did when I sentenced you," he told the five probationers. "You all seem to be doing great."

He turned to 20-year-old Normandy Rae Miers, the only woman in the group.

Villanti had sentenced her in August to two years probation for sale and possession of cocaine.

"How's the drug business?" the judge asked.

"I'm a little short of money," Miers replied, offering a sheepish smile.

"But now your skin color is good. You look healthy."

Not everyone is doing so well, Villanti told the small group. Four other people were ordered to show up for the hearing. They weren't there because they have already violated their probation.

"I guess I was right," Villanti said of his hunch that the people he selected were at a high risk of failing.

He issued a warning to the five who made it this far: Get caught violating your probation, and Villanti would order them held without bail.

"That would mean that you duped me," he said. "I'll be keeping in touch with your files. I'll be watching you."

He also gave them a picture of what life could be like if they fail.

He asked the group if any of them had ever been to prison.

A 36-year-old man on probation for child abuse and battery raised his hand.

"Tell us about it," the judge said. "What was it like?"

"Not fun," said Thomas Platko, who spent five months in prison for burglary.

One of his cellmates was a convicted murderer, he said.

"Pretty nasty people," the judge said.

As a reward for sharing his story, Villanti subtracted 30 days from Platko's probation.

In the interview before the hearing, Villanti said his idea for the hearings was rooted in his frustration that his dockets were becoming clogged with probation violators. Part of his motivation for the hearings was selfish: If he could help more people succeed, he wouldn't have to see them again.

But more than that, he said many of the people he sentences to probation for drug and property crimes still have the better part of their adult lives in front of them.

If they violate their probation, they face house arrest or prison, and the likelihood increases that they will become violent criminals, he said.

But give them a little tough love, "or a modicum of encouragement, and I think they can succeed," Villanti said.

Todd Clear, a professor of law and police science at John Jay University in New York, said the program could help probationers overcome their belief that the justice system is their enemy.

"Maybe this is a way to take away adversarial feelings and personalize the relationship people have with the courts," Clear said, adding that he has never heard of such a program anywhere in the United States.

Many probationers, Clear said, believe the system is only interested in urine samples and other tests that -- if they fail them -- could send them to prison.

But Villanti's plan could also benefit other judges, Clear said. "Judges usually see nothing but failures," he said.

"So the chance to see successes could really help them realize what's possible."

Local prosecutors and defense attorneys also like Villanti's proactive approach.

"He's trying to do what a judge should be doing -- deter crime," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis. "You've got to commend this guy."

Said defense attorney Keith Hammond: "Some of my clients, because of their upbringing, have no concept of how to structure their lives, which you have to do if you're on probation. This is a chance to nip a problem in the bud early."

The hard part will be finding the time. But Villanti is known for running an efficient courtroom. He said he is determined to make time on his calendar for the probation review hearings.

"It's nice that he's saying that in his spare time, he's going to try to do something to help people," Halkitis said.

Villanti has already started picking more people for the hearings.

He plans to track all of the cases to see if the program reduces the number of probation violators on his docket.

After Thursday's hearing, the probationers said the judge had made an impact on them.

"My whole outlook on life is different," said Miers.

She has enrolled in school and moved from public housing into a place of her own.

She was once in danger of losing her two children, but now the family is thriving, she said.

"My children mean more to me than anything," she said. "I don't want to violate."

Joseph Mickelson, 18, who is serving two years probation for possession of morphine and marijuana, said just having to come back to court and face the judge made an impression.

"It gives you an incentive not to do anything wrong," he said.

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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