Who gets a rider? A plea deal? Dismissed charges?

Bannock County prosecutor Steven Herzog (middle) with deputy prosecutors Erin Jennifer Tognetti (left) and JaNiece Price (right)

Bannock County Prosecutor Steven Herzog (middle) with deputy prosecutors Erin Tognetti (left) and JaNiece Price at a recent court hearing. | Kalama Hines, EastIdahoNews.com

POCATELLO — There are few stories published on EastIdahoNews.com that draw more ire than those regarding a criminal defendant being sentenced to a rider. It is a rarity that these stories are not immediately accompanied by comments questioning the integrity of judges and prosecution teams.

But, according to Bannock County Prosecutor Steven Herzog, a great deal of consideration goes into the decision to recommend a rider.

RELATED | What is a rider?

As Herzog explained, the majority of cases in which the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office recommends riders involve non-violent offenses, like drug and property crimes — 78%, he said.

“Nationwide, the criminal justice system has shifted focus from simply incarcerating people, which most agree generally does not ‘fix’ the underlying problem of addiction, and shifted to a model that focuses on treatment and rehabilitation. The rider program is a key component in the shift,” Herzog said in an emailed response to questions from EastIdahoNews.com.

What constitutes a rider

One commenter on a story about Wanda May Mansfield being sent on a rider for causing injury to a child voiced their displeasure with the rider program.

“Sure am glad we came up with the rider program,” the commenter wrote, “sure would hate for the justice system to do their jobs!”

According to Herzog though, the rider is a perfect example of the justice system’s attempts to properly rehabilitate criminal offenders.

“It is a structured, relatively short stint in the prison system, focusing on providing inmates the opportunity to learn new skills to improve their behavior when they are released,” he said of the rider program.

Another commenter, on a recent story about Neicon Nicolas Loveless receiving a rider for a knife attack, admitted their previous lack of understanding in the program.

“I’m glad they spelled out that the rider starts out with a year in prison and in treatment program(s),” the commenter wrote. “I previously thought a rider let them go free. I actually like the idea of riders because they encourage the perp to fully participate in treatment. Having nine years cut off your sentence is good incentive to do your best to learn and to change.”

When a person is sent on a rider, that does not mean that person is released from prison and told by the court to complete programs on their own. The rider program is carried out within the prison system.

Additionally, all riders are accompanied by an “underlying prison sentence,” which is the prison time deemed a sufficient penalty for the crime.

While the person is in prison, they must complete certain programs, focused on substance abuse treatment and learning vocational skills among other things. Overall, the programs undergone while on a rider are geared toward curbing the “underlying causes of criminal thinking,” Herzog said.

And when a person does not complete these programs, in a way the courts find satisfactory, they can remain in prison to fulfill their underlying sentence.

“If a rider participant behaves in such a way during the program that indicates they would NOT be a viable candidate for supervision in the community (i.e. probation), they will not be released and will serve at a minimum the fixed portion of their sentence,” Herzog added.

As Herzog explained, prison disciplinary violations result in the majority of rider failures.

Also, the term “fixed” in a prison sentence pertains to the mandatory minimum prison time. A discretionary sentence is time to be served should the system deem the inmate needs that additional time to properly rehabilitate.

So, a rider with an underlying prison sentence of six to 10 years means that the inmate will have one year to complete the in-prison programs to which they are assigned. If they fail the rider program in any way, they will spend at least six years in prison, and based on their actions while in prison, up to 10 years.

Because offenders who fail riders are immediately transferred to “termed” sentence, without further court proceedings, Herzog could not provide even an estimation on the percentage of failed riders.

Upon successful completion of the rider, a judge can choose to place the person on probation. While serving that probation, the person must find gainful employment and a permanent residence, along with other guidelines provided by the court and monitored by probation and parole officers. They will also be tested for drug and alcohol use.

Violation of the probation can, again, result in the person’s return to prison to serve the remainder of the prison sentence — or, on occasion, additional prison time.

Statewide, 1,224 offenders were sent on riders in 2020 — down from 1,504 in 2019 — according to information provided by the Idaho Department of Corrections.

For comparison, 7,176 offenders were given term prison sentences and sent to prison without a rider in 2020.

In Bannock County, where Herzog and his deputies oversee prosecution efforts, 108 offenders started rider programs in 2020, according to IDOC Annex research analyst Jeffrey Lojewski. In 2021, that number rose to 142 people.

How about plea deals?

As in the case with riders, commenters seem to be frustrated by the majority of plea agreements reached with criminal offenders.

One commenter in a story about Jarom Arthur Blackburn expressed his frustration. Blackburn reached a plea deal where an aggravated assault charge and a deadly weapon enhancement were dismissed in exchange for a guilty plea to possession of methamphetamine.

“Soo y’all tired of this yet??,” the commenter wrote. “Do you want this drug dealing violent criminal out on the street where your kids play? Enough already Bannock County DA’s office of ‘woke’ justice !”

As Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Taylor explained to EastIdahoNews.com, a plea deal is offered when law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office conduct a successful investigation.

“A plea agreement is not letting someone off the hook,” he said. “A plea agreement means everyone did their job right.”

When a case goes to trial, he continued, it means that there are holes in the evidence.

Though Herzog did not speak directly to them, there are numerous reasons for the decision to offer a plea agreement — and to drop certain charges.

Double-Jeopardy is included in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and prevents any one person from being prosecuted for any one crime multiple times.

“Each crime has specific elements that must be proven at trial beyond a reasonable doubt,” Herzog said. “If evidence is lacking or weak (on) one or more elements, we will not file charges. However, we can always look at the case again if additional evidence is discovered that bolsters the strength of the case.”

There are also instances in which a witness key to the conviction of an alleged offender chooses not to testify, or fails to appear in court. In these situations, a prosecutor can decide not to pursue those charges at that time as further evidence or witness testimony is collected.

In many cases, a prosecutor will dismiss a charge if other charges, which will lead to prison time, exist. Another thing to consider is Idaho penal code and the maximum potential penalty for crimes.

To use the above-mentioned case involving Blackburn, Idaho’s maximum penalty for possession of a schedule 1 narcotic is up to seven years in prison and $15,000 in fines. The maximum penalty for aggravated assault is five years and $5,000.

So, by offering to dismiss the crime carrying a lesser penalty in exchange for a guilty plea on the crime carrying the greater penalty, Herzog’s office has proven guilt without a trial — and the costs that accompany said trial.

No charges, dismissed charges

EastIdahoNews.com has received, on numerous occasions, messages expressing frustration over the decision by prosecutors to dismiss charges or not file charges at all.

Kerri Caster, who told EastIdahoNews.com that her son was attacked by a man named Ceaser Ramon Rodriguez, was one of those commenters.

Rodriguez was charged after a chase, in which he led officers through residential streets in Pocatello before crashing into one of the police cruisers. He was eventually sentenced to probation.

Caster’s frustration was that Rodriguez was never charged with any crimes in connection to an attack that left her son eating through a straw, what she called a “miscarriage of justice.”

That attack, she said, occurred minutes before the chase, and complaints were filed with Pocatello police.

“My property taxes sure skyrocketed to pay their salaries, but they don’t protect me and mine,” Caster told EastIdahoNews.com of local prosecutors. “It just seems like, nowadays, they just want to cave.”

Herzog declined to comment on any specific cases but did respond to a question about the process by which his office decides whether or not to file charges.

What Herzog did say was, that his office determines whether or not to file charges based heavily on probable cause provided through evidence collection and witness or victim statements.

If there isn’t sufficient probable cause to convince a court of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, then charges are not filed.

Herzog provided examples of situations in which his office would decide not to file charges or dismiss charges filed.

Some of the examples provided include domestic disputes, where the victim decides against charges after filing a police report; crimes involving younger offenders whom the system would provide greater benefit without criminal proceedings; crimes that involve theft, in which the offender agrees to pay all restitution for charges not filed or dismissed; and, of course, in cases where the prosecutor does not believe evidence available would achieve a guilty verdict.

Once guilt is determined, be it through a jury trial or plea agreements, the sentencing process begins.

As Herzog explained, the prosecution will argue for what it believes is the most fitting punishment — based on the offense, its impact on the community and the likelihood of re-offending.

In the end though, a sentence is decided by the judge, with a recommendation from the (Idaho) Department of Corrections, Taylor said.

Prior to sentencing, the IDOC files a presentence investigation, which includes their recommended punishment.

“(A PSI) looks into the criminal history of the defendant, the facts of the case itself, any drug, alcohol, or mental health considerations, and ultimately the IDOC’s view on whether the protection of society can be accomplished with the defendant remaining in the community,” according to Taylor.

While a judge has discretion over sentence judgment, they primarily abide by the recommendation from the IDOC — the department responsible for overseeing the punishment determined by the court.

In many instances, Taylor continued, a lack of prison beds plays a key role in the presentence investigation recommendations.

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