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The court needed counsel on its jury trial decision

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 14, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
June 14, 2010 5:44 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

As the Legislature demonstrates on a regular basis, you can’t make deep funding cuts in public services while holding everyone harmless. That goes for state government, and it goes for the Pierce County Superior Court.

But there’s a difference: When state lawmakers write a budget, all citizens with a stake in the outcome can get a hearing in Olympia – if not personally, through lobbyists or advocacy groups. When the Pierce County court recently trimmed more than $400,000 out of its budget – in part by eliminating five weeks of jury trials – nobody got a hearing.

Let’s be clear: The superior court bench is under no obligation to bring any non-judges into its decision-making loop. It is an independent branch of government, and no outsiders – whether the county executive, the Pierce County Council or citizens at large – should be micromanaging its decisions on the administration of justice. The court’s policies certainly shouldn’t be distorted by pressure groups and lobbyists.

But the fact that the court can keep everyone else out of the process doesn’t mean it ought to. The Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association and the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office in particular have an enormous stake in how well the gears of justice mesh.

They complain that the bench sprang the week-long jury blackouts on them as a fait accompli, with no chance for input. That was a mistake: The bar and the prosecutor’s office are full of smart people who presumably might have offered some good ideas had they been quietly consulted.

Even had the bar and prosecutors been involved, though, the outcome might have been much the same. Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff said the judges scoured their budget for economies, and they did make hard decisions – imposing furloughs and reducing hours, for example.

They rightly tried to spare the county’s adult felony drug court as much as possible. This program allows defendants charged with drug-related crimes to go into treatment in lieu of jail, providing they first plead guilty. If they are successful in shaking their addictions, they do no time. That’s the carrot. The stick is the threat of incarceration if they relapse.

It works. Drug court has helped extricate many offenders from addiction-driven crime. It has reduced the recidivism rate, kept drug users from clogging the criminal justice system and saved the taxpayers a lot of money. Everybody wins, especially the addicts who can leave their habit behind.

If the jury-trial blackouts were the inevitable trade-off for preserving the drug court, the court made the right call. But there would have been more confidence in the decision if more attorneys – who are themselves officers of the court – had been part of it.

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