ITHACA, NY – On Tuesday, members of the Tompkins County Legislature were briefed on the progress of an initiative that may consolidate the operations of municipal courts across the county.

County Administrator Joe Mareane explained that the program sprang out of initiatives aimed at sharing services between municipalities, with the goal of both for efficiency purposes and “improving the quality of justice” coming from town and village courts. There is a similar plan being considered for consolidating law enforcement services.

The Tompkins County Council of Governments appointed a task force in 2015 to investigate the possibilities of such a program. Ithaca attorney Ray Schlather, the chair of that task force, presented the details to the legislature.

Schlather lumped the proposed changes into three camps: those that could be implemented right away by the county, those that could be implemented immediately with collaboration from towns and villages, and those that would be long-term goals that would take significant effort to change.

Consolidating cases

The Task Force’s most significant recommendation fell into that first category. This proposal called for the consolidation of all misdemeanor and violation level Driving While Intoxicated cases (including Driving While Impaired by Drugs) into a single countywide part of State Supreme Court.

Schlather said that the change would help address a significant burden on the town and village courts, as well as some unevenness in the quality of justice. Statistics show there are about 350 DWI cases a year, county-wide. About one-third of those are in the city, with the rest being in the outlying towns and villages, Schlather said.

“What we learned is that there is both a burden on the towns and village courts, as well as some level of unevenness in the delivery of justice,” Schlather said. He further suggested that a consolidated DWI court could be a model for other counties, but may also pave the way for a county-wide court for handling all misdemeanor charges.

The biggest issue in implementing this, Schlather explained, would be convincing the state to appoint an additional county justice to Tompkins, as no new justices were have been added in Tompkins as its population has increased over the years.

Other short-term changes that could be implemented include the establishment of a county-wide youth court, a consolidated after-hours arraignment system, and the establishment of a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

Changes that would require collaboration with town and village courts included things like improving convenient electronic access to court resources and better synchronized scheduling to avoid dragging assigned counsel all across the county on a given night.

Reducing jail burden

Other solutions focused on reducing strain on the jail.

“There should be, not just the presumption, but should be an absolute rule that first-time offenders accused of misdemeanors or less should be released on the own recognizance,” Schlather said. “Bail is just a way to ensuring someone returns to court. In this world of high technology, nobody can hide. There’s no reason why we have bail and have people sitting in jail because they can’t come up with $500. It’s stupid, it costs a lot of money.”

On a similar note, it called for doing away with “debtors’ prison.” In other words, people wouldn’t be arrested and jailed because they couldn’t afford to pay fines or surcharges. Instead, a judgment could simply be entered against the person. As Schlather pointed out, maybe they could pay it later if they are free, but they’re certainly not going to pay it if they’re imprisoned. It would also save time and energy that would be spent arresting and processing those people.

“Black Box Justice”

Schlather described one possible long-term, aspirational goal of such a program “Brave New World-ish.”

“I see the day —  and I shudder when I even say it, because it goes against the grain of everything I stood for when I started out in law 40 years ago — but I see the day where we have what I call ‘black box justice,” Schlather said. “I’m talking about low-level misdemenaors, traffic offenses, the kinds of things that really have no consequence outside of the individual and, frankly, the public purse.”

Schlather explained a system that would handle minor cases electronically. Offenders who, for example, got a traffic ticket, could check their fine online, see what deductions they might be able to get through the DA’s office, plead guilty and have their case evaluated electronically. They could pay their fine without setting foot in (or waiting endlessly in) a courtroom.

Regarding what’s next, Legislature Chair Michael Lane said that the County would first need a request from TCCOG to move forward, on actions such as initiating the conversation with the Office of Court Administration. Legislative consideration would then proceed through the Legislature committee structure, most likely beginning with Public Safety.

The full Municipal Courts Task Force report can be read on the county’s website.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.