The following is a republished press release from the Tompkins County Public Information Office. It was NOT written by The Ithaca Voice.
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ITHACA, NY – The Municipal Courts Task Force, which over the past year has been engaged in a careful and intensive examination of the town and village justice system in Tompkins County, is beginning to move toward recommending structural and operational changes that could be made to sustain and improve efficiencies and the quality of justice provided by the county’s municipal courts.
The Task Force early last year was charged by the Tompkins County Council of Governments to assess the potential to improve efficiency and to reduce costs through structural realignments of the justice courts within Tompkins County. Further, the Task Force was asked not only to ensure that any such realignments did not diminish the quality of justice but also to determine whether specific and cost-effective structural changes likely would improve the overall quality of justice within Tompkins County.
Meeting Wednesday, task force members reached informal consensus in support of recommending establishment of a specialized DWI Court, as part of the Tompkins County Court, with a superior court judge presiding. If implemented, this change would remove from all town, village and city Courts all cases related to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller, a member of the task force who has operated a similar DWI Court as part of Ithaca City Court, said he sees such a specialized court as “absolutely necessary” to deal effectively with the unique issues and complexity of DWI cases.
He said the dynamic of bringing together those from all walks of life who are charged with DWI produces a “very powerful common thread” that he believes has a clear deterrent effect. Judge Miller estimated that a county DWI court could be expected to handle about 200 cases per year. Yet to be determined is where the resources would come from to manage that caseload.
Task Force members, however, were split on another potential structural change discussed—diverting all local misdemeanor cases from the justice courts to County Court, essentially creating a single criminal court in Tompkins County.
Reflecting on the issue, task force chair Ray Schlather said that, while he values the town and village courts and their history as a reflection of “grassroots justice”, he has developed concerns over the course of the task force’s investigation about some “unevenness of justice” meted out among the town and village courts. Schlather believes that a system diverting misdemeanor cases from the justice court system to the superior court level would help to balance the administration of justice countywide.
Several members noted that recourse already exists under law for a defendant charged with a misdemeanor whose case is before a non-lawyer judge in justice court to petition to remove that case to County Court. Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said she would need more information before being able to recommend establishment of a more centralized system. She said she believes the existing provision of removal of cases to County Court protects the interests of defendants.
Both Justices Glenn Galbreath (Village of Cayuga Heights) and Betty Poole (Town of Enfield) said they were “adamantly opposed” to a centralized system, maintaining it would produce a great increase in cost and would add a huge new bureaucracy. Judge Galbreath said that centralization may be “trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Judge Poole suggested that considering such a change runs contrary to the task force’s charge, which she said called for consideration of cost-effective solutions, and that consideration of a centralized system, at an increased cost, seeks to “tear down the justice court system, instead of seeking ways to repair it.”
Task force recommendations, she said, should focus on changes that would make the existing system work better. Several elements, in such areas as court scheduling, bail parameters, and levying of fines, previously have been discussed as “best practice” recommendations that could be included in the task force report.
Noting that lack of consensus on any critical recommendation of the task force would not be politically persuasive, and given the clear split of opinion by the membership on the issue of a single countywide court at this time for all criminal cases including misdemeanors and felonies, Mr. Schlather suggested that at minimum the task force should identify such a cost-effective centralized court system as an aspiration for the future.
The task force resumes its deliberations on April 27. The final report is scheduled to be delivered to the Council of Governments on or about June 1.
Further information on deliberations of the Municipal Courts Task Force may be found at the task force website at www.tompkinscountyny.gov/
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