By editorial board • 

Boost in court resources may be money well spent

There are no courts closer to the people than the municipal courts serving cities and justice courts serving counties.

But their jurisdiction is limited to the realm of ordinance and traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes and minor criminal violations like shoplifting and trespassing. Thus, they tend to operate largely out of sight and mind, coming to public notice only when a scandal or controversy erupts.

That seems to be changing under veteran Albany defense lawyer Arnold Poole, who replaced Cynthia Kaufman Noble as municipal judge in McMinnville last summer.

He’s finding so many ways to make a difference — and so many partners to enlist in the effort, as the local justice system claws its way back out of pandemic-induced doldrums — that community leaders seem to be increasingly taking positive note. The acid test will be how they respond to his recent request for updated computer software and some additional court dates.

Municipal courts are an offshoot of justice courts, which were first established in England by King Richard III in the 1100s. The king appointed justices of the peace to check the local authority of sheriffs, which he felt was usurping the federal authority of the crown.

In the U.S., the system has grown over the years to encompass 7,500 courts in 30 states. Collectively, there are processed more than 3.5 million criminal cases and collecting more than $2 billion in fines and fees every year.

Twenty Oregon counties also operate justice courts, but Yamhill is not one of them.

Poole took the plunge into municipal court work after losing out in a bid for the Linn County Circuit Court bench in 2010. He was already holding down coastal posts in Lincoln City and Toledo when he added McMinnville to his portfolio, leading him to limit his law practice to major felonies.

One of his first orders of business was reducing the court’s debilitating 80% failure to appear rate.

He’s managed to trim it by 20% so far by holding video arraignments at the county jail, reaching out to drug, alcohol, mental health and social service partners to help clients keep commitments, restoring a local work crew program, shuffling the schedule to work in more night hours, deputizing police officers to serve as court release officers, offering walk-in appearance offers and just plain getting tougher. “Word’s gotten out that we mean business around here,” he said.

According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83% of felony defendants never miss a scheduled court appearance. But there’s a tendency for traffic and ordinance violators to feel they can blow off appearances with impunity, and Poole’s bent on turning that around.

However, the docket is growing, and he doesn’t think the court’s traditional practice of limiting trials to fifth Wednesdays and other types of proceedings to first-through-fourth Wednesdays is going to prove sufficient going forward. He thinks the city is gradually going to need to add at least an occasional second weekday.

The rub, of course, is that both upgrading software and expanding hours carry a price. So that’s where the rubber will likely to meet the road with Poole’s new way of doing things.

We don’t favor city officials adding funding obligation to any kind of endeavor without serious analysis and reflection. We are well aware that spending more here means spending less there and vice versa, as local tax resources are finite.

However, we like what we hear from and about the new sheriff in town — if King Richard will pardon the reference — and hope the city will do what it can to reward his display of initiative, organization and enthusiasm in his new posting.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Here’s hoping the will can be mustered.


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