Our Astonishing Nevada County Court System

Op-Ed by Jim Hurley

For the past few weeks, I’ve been tabling outside local grocery stores for Judge Anderson. He’s running for reelection to the office of Superior Court judge. My objective was to educate voters. But, as it turns out, I’m learning a great deal myself. First, I learned that outside a grocery store is not the ideal environment in which to engage in public discourse; people’s arms and minds are filled with groceries. Making weighty decisions about offices that appear to have little bearing on their lives is a distant second. After all, how often do you deal with judges ? Hopefully, not often. The “undervote” (number of voters who fail to make a choice for a particular electoral office) is greater for judicial offices than any other electoral category. That lack of interest was the first thing I learned. The second was there is a subset of voters who are boiling over with emotion about this race and are more than willing to speak their minds and hearts, both pro and con.

I was prepared to do battle on two fronts:

– What effect does a judge have on issues of personal and public safety?

– What effect, if any, does a judge have on pocketbook issues; these are tough economic times.

That was the plan. As so often happens, plans get hijacked by events. What I discovered was the elephant in the room. Crime and judicial decisions are not just hot-button issues — they are the white-hot iron that cauterizes reason.

Trouble is, reason feeds on facts, and people have a way of finding their own facts — facts that support their deep- seated emotional commitment. So, in the end, we all fall back on emotion. “The heart has reasons that reason does not know,” said Blaise Pascal. So let me appeal to your emotions. Emotions are not invulnerable to the facts. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “Take one more step and I’ll blow your head off.” When presented with these facts, I watch my step, for I have a strong emotional attachment to my head. You see, the heart has reasons. (This brings to mind graffiti I saw written on a New York city subway wall, “Support mental health, or I’ll kill you.”)

I have some facts that may influence you emotions, your feelings about crime and justice — facts that dominate both the physical and financial costs of crime, facts about our Nevada County Courts. Bear with me.

The recidivism rate for drug crime, for example, in California is 70%. The cost of maintaining these habituated prisoners is $50,000 per year. The system is broken. Supporting that system supports crime and the ever-mounting physical and financial costs. We are all paying a price to support this welfare system for the vengeance addicted.

Stop it!

Alongside these depressing facts, there are some facts about the courts in Nevada County that may surprise you, facts that may strike an emotional cord. They did for me.

Not all courts are alike. Beside the regular courts — the ones with great benches mounted on high, judges in robes, lawyers in a lather and juries in a catatonic stupor — there is, in Nevada County, an Alternative Court System, so- called “problem-solving” courts. These courts practice justice the way hospitals practice medicine. While a plaster cast works well on a broken leg, it works not so well on appendicitis. Maybe we should handle different crimes differently—dah. There are currently seven such problem-solving courts ranging from the DUI and Adult Drug Courts to the Mental Illness Court and Dependency Drug Court (for defendants with dependent children.)

You may say that they are coddling criminals with these touchy-feely courts. But you’d be wrong. Stop thinking with your emotions. I attended a couple of these courts last week (Dependency and Mental Health courts)—strictly as an observer you understand. I have seen them at work. I have seen Judge Anderson at work. He comes down off the bench and sits at a table across from the parolee. They have a conversation. Other parolees in the audience, waiting their turn, kibitz and cheer, when the occasion merits. Even before the hearing, they gather as a group outside the courtroom. I saw them laughing and talking together. They are not just a list of individuals awaiting processing, but have become, over time, a support group. I found it inspiring.

Coddling you say? I also saw one parolee taken away by two burly sheriff officers to resume a prison sentence for violating the conditions of parole. There are times when treatment demands punishment. But there are times when treatment and reward for accomplishment are called for.

Judge Anderson is a strong advocate for these Alternative Courts, as evidenced by his current effort to initiate yet another such court, an eighth problem-solving court, a Domestic Violence Court. (That takes real courage. Give me a crackhead to cope with any day of the week. Crackheads are monophonic; domestic violators are stereophrantic.) He has also been largely responsible for the implementation of Laura’s Law in the Nevada County, the law that goes beyond treating the after effects of crime committed by the mentally ill, but, instead, plays an active role in heading off such problems before they occur. That’s a form of judicial activism we can all support!

“But,” you say, “where’s the facts? You promised facts to stir my emotions,” you say. Here are the facts and they are numbers, two numbers. As I said, statewide the recidivism rate for drug offences in California is 70%. But for those who go through the Adult Drug Court in Nevada County, that rate is 20%! That is an astonishing accomplishment. Who would have thought? Thoughtful people at work in our judicial system to achieve a better outcome! Your past votes for judges at work in Nevada County’s courts. Take a bow.

I am comforted by the fact that Judge Anderson supports problem-solving courts and Laura’s Law. I believe that is evidence of his good judgment, his “judicial temperament.” I am not comforted by the fact that his opponent advocates retribution leading to recidivism and passes judgment without all the facts. I believe that demonstrates poor judgment, and unacceptable judicial temperament.

The decision we make on June 5th will have long-lasting impacts on individuals who come before Nevada County’s Superior Court and to this community as a whole, we who are impacted by criminal conduct and must bear the financial and emotional burden of our failing prison system. There are two choices: Elect a Judge who has shown that he can balance punishment with outcome, both for the community and the defendant, or one who — with mindlessly harsher sentencing — would dig more deeply in the hole we already occupy.

Jim Hurley lives in Nevada City.

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One Response to “Our Astonishing Nevada County Court System”
  1. Steve Frisch says:

    Wow, great column Jim.

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