Note: This story was updated March 31 to add a link to the judge’s letter.
Mike Baker, the director of Anderson County’s alternatives to jail program, was critical of the judiciary and the county mayor when he announced his resignation last week, saying he didn’t have their support.
This week, though, three Anderson County judges said Baker, whose last day is April 4, had made “no real attempt” to work with them. When Baker started his job about a year ago, they said, he lacked knowledge of Tennessee laws related to prisoner release programs, and he had no relevant experience in the state or Anderson County.
“The judges of this county dealing with those issues have collectively over 40 years of judicial experience, with many years beyond that as lawyers involved in the criminal justice system,” said the three judges, Criminal and Circuit Court Judge Donald Elledge, and General Sessions judges Don A. Layton and Ron N. Murch. “Yet to hear Mr. Baker tell it, he has all the answers to significantly reduce the jail population and save the county ‘millions of dollars per year by reducing the population in jail,’ but which he can’t do because the judges refuse to cooperate with him.”
The March 25 letter from the judges was addressed to Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank and Anderson County commissioners.
Frank has previously responded to Baker’s charges. She said Baker has a passion for rehabilitating offenders, but he has “failed to understand the legal system itself and the rights of the accused.”
Meanwhile, Anderson County Commissioner Myron Iwanski, who was interim mayor when Baker was hired, said he was disappointed by the resignation.
“All of the key officials in the criminal justice system had an opportunity to help write the position description, interview, and hire for this position,” Iwanski said. “A team of them selected him as the best candidate from over 50 applicants.”
The alternatives to incarceration program is meant to save money and reduce crime and the jail population. In 2011, Anderson County commissioners agreed to use two cents on the property tax rate to bankroll the new program, which has a budget of more than $300,000.
But the judges said Baker was on the job for up to three months before he met with them, and he never asked certain questions related to prisoner release programs, including what had already been done.
“His approach was he had preconceived notions about what he was going to do, and he was going to do it his way without regard to what the law or the judges required and that he could force the judges to accept that,” said Elledge, Layton, and Murch. “His continued erroneous public assault on the judiciary is an example of that approach.”
They said Baker had “stubbornly refused to accept what the law requires with regard to pretrial release” and has “misrepresented the situation to commission and the public.”
In his resignation letter, Baker said the lack of support for alternatives to incarceration could lead to increasing jail populations and drug-related crime.
“We could be so much more successful if everyone was on the same page,” he said during a presentation to the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge last week.
One of the points of contention was apparently related to questions about drug use that Baker wanted to ask pretrial inmates, but which might be considered self-incriminating. Baker said other agencies were allowed to ask the same questions, but he couldn’t have contact with pretrial detainees.
“It’s ridiculous to put the assessment processing in place if you can’t have the whole pie,” he said.
Baker, who is retired from the Iowa Department of Corrections, suggested Anderson County leave money in place for the alternatives to incarceration program, address the county’s drug problem primarily as a disease and secondarily as a crime, and keep pretrial and probation operations separate from the judiciary. He also recommended preserving an alternatives to incarceration advisory committee and “encourage buy-in by everyone in the judiciary and criminal justice system and willingness to support putting these alternatives in place.”
The judges—who said they are “acutely aware” of the problems related to jail overcrowding—said they were bound by certain responsibilities under the law, and there are certain things they cannot do.
“There seems to be a lack of understanding or knowledge that we have taken many steps in the past and continue to look for ways to reduce the jail population,” the judges said.
Elledge, Layton, and Murch said Baker needed judiciary approval on matters related to prisoner release. Baker would agree to seek their approval, but then follow up with public or written criticism that the judges failed to cooperate, Elledge, Layton, and Murch said.
“Apparently, not agreeing with him is considered by him as a failure to cooperate,” they said.
Iwanski said it was unfortunate that Baker could not get some of the support he needed to put some key programs in place.
“Without this support and the ability to work together, we will continue to miss opportunities for grants that help pay for these programs and we will be forced to spend more and more to build and operate jails,” Iwanski said.
He said Baker has “done a good job getting the alternatives to incarceration program started and has had some important successes.”
Iwanski said he hopes the county implements Baker’s recommendations “for moving the program forward.” They will save taxpayers money, while helping to reduce the crime rate, Iwanski said.