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Municipal Courts Task Force Begins Public Input Phase

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Municipal Courts Task Force Begins Public Input Phase

Friday, September 18, 2015

The local task force charged with examining the structure and function of the municipal court system in Tompkins County heard its first presentations this week, as it begins to gather information and invites input and perspectives from a wide range of stakeholders regarding how the local courts system operates and any suggestions, about how the system can be improved.

Earlier this year, the Tompkins County Council of Governments created the task force to evaluate the local courts system in Tompkins County and recommend any sensible changes to the structural alignment of the local courts to improve efficiency without reducing the quality of justice.  The task force includes local Judges, the District Attorney, two town supervisors, and attorneys who practice in the local courts.

At the beginning of the September 16 meeting, Ithaca Attorney Raymond Schlather, who chairs the Municipal Courts Task Force, made it clear that the Task Force is gathering information, and is not entering its work with any preconceived notions that changes are needed.

The task force heard presentations from Jonathan Gradess, Executive Director of the New York State Public Defenders Association; Tompkins County Court Judge John Rowley; and Kevin Kelly, staff attorney for LawNY (formerly Neighborhood Legal Services).

Judge Rowley commented that he does have some concerns about the current system, that it can create an “unnecessary and unfair fragmentation of justice across the board, civil and criminal” and that the coordinated model of the integrated domestic violence court, established not long ago by the State, may be a helpful way to think about the type of coordination that could be beneficial.  He observed that the town and village courts can vary in their quality, that he has concern about non-lawyer judges presiding over criminal cases, and that a district court model could “consolidate into a logical, rational system.”

Mr. Gradess also spoke in support of a thoughtful consolidation approach, with uniform oversight, and suggested that restructuring might establish a district court that could incorporate a restorative justice approach.  (Restorative justice is a philosophical concept in the justice system that involves the offender, the victim and the community,  seeking to make the victim whole, reintegrate the offender into the community, and hold the offender personally accountable to the victim and the community.)  Mr. Gradess characterized Tompkins County as the type of place where an innovative and exciting approach could be developed.

Mr. Kelly, who stressed that, in view of his organization’s non-profit status, he cannot advocate for any type of structure or approach, recounted his experiences in working with justice courts, remarking that one challenge he has experienced is obtaining necessary papers from courts open limited hours.  He said it would be easier for his organization to handle a lot of cases, if operating within a consolidated system.

Future task force meetings will include presentations from local town and village judges, and court clerks, law enforcement agencies, client advocacy groups, local elected officials, and representatives of district courts that are in operation on Long Island.  Public input sessions will continue through January 2016.

All Task Force meetings are open to the public.  The next meeting will be held Wednesday, September 30, 4:30-6:00 p.m., at the first floor conference room of the County’s Old Jail Office Building, 125 E. Court Street, Ithaca.

An audio file of the September 16 meeting will be posted at the Municipal Courts Task Force page at http://www.tompkinscountyny.gov/tccog/municipal_courts#.  The page also includes information on the Task Force charge and operations, its membership, meeting information, and reference material, and includes a section where comment and suggestions may be submitted.