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Segal: Justices of the peace are judges for the people

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Guest opinion

Segal: Justices of the peace are judges for the people

As a candidate for justice of the peace for three prior election cycles, the question that voters typically asked me was: “What is the job of the justice of the peace?” The answer is simple. It is a judicial role for a court of the people. The justice of the peace is a magistrate with jurisdictional authority to hear and resolve cases involving public disturbances, trespass, domestic violence, driving while impaired by alcohol and other misdemeanors as well as lawsuits under $15,000.

In this election cycle of 2018 the most common question I get is “why are/would/do you run for office?” It’s a much harder question to answer. I loved the time I worked as a judge. I love the opportunity to make the world a better place by being a judge for the people. I want try and resolve the disparity between mental health problems and the criminal justice system and interrupt the “street to cell” cycle.

The Pima County Justice Court is the best forum to engage a person who is struggling with mental illness and commits an infraction or misdemeanor. When there is an act against society, such as urinating in a public place, shouting at passersby, making threatening statements that repeat mental voices, those acts are now commonly treated with an arrest, detention in jail, release, repeat. When the accused is brought to court, the choice is a fine or community service and often just given credit for time served in jail. If, however, the individual is currently receiving services for mental illness and does not have a prior conviction, then he or she can be referred to the Mental Health Court at the Pima County Justice Court.

Although the program is well-established, the protocol is stagnant. People are seen monthly for a minute or two, the case is reviewed and their status is confirmed. Their time in court is brief, summary and impersonal. While all may be well-intentioned, the program has not changed or invigorated for years and years. Its existence is relatively unknown outside of mental health and legal specialists.

What if, for example, a Pima Community College professor had a student who was disturbingly outspoken, violent and prone to uncomfortable outbursts. While the teacher may not want to confront or engage the student, what if the professor knew that the county offered a structured resource of supervision and accountability through the courts? What if the professor knew that by contacting the police and authorizing a misdemeanor arrest, the student could be referred to a mental health court for intervention and mandatory treatment, but not have a record of a conviction. This process is known as a diversion from conviction and, with program compliance, avoids any criminal record. The student is then in a structured, hands-on environment that effectively supervises medication, counseling and accountability. The formality of court proceedings can be a gentle framework by which a mentally ill person has a responsibility to an anonymous forum and is not focused not on an individual complainant.

What if, at the onset of his violent classroom outbursts, community college professors knew that they could refer Jared Loughner, the madman who murdered Tucsonans, United States District Court Judge John Roll and attempted to kill Congresswoman Giffords, to a court program? Court documents reveal that Loughner was known to be troubled, prone to verbal abuse and socially dysfunctional. His family knew he had problems, but did not know what to do. Loughner had a misdemeanor case in Pima County Justice Court prior to his murderous spree. If family or faculty had been able to use Justice Court as a resource rather than a swinging door, then maybe men, women and a child would be with us today.

If an individual has a prior conviction record, then under current policies, the accused is not eligible for mental health court or non-punitive interventions. Why not? National programs for Mental Health Court permit judicial discretion for enrolling different types of misdemeanor offenders into the lower-jurisdictional courts. Other programs do not limit acceptance into mental health court to only first-time offenders. That approach is outdated and irrelevant.

Just think: What if a Pima County Justice Court judge, after accepting a plea of guilty or following a conviction, suggests that the defendant could pay a non-mandatory fine of $1,000.00 or “work off” the fine by providing proof of counseling and/or medication each month for a credit of $100.00? Counseling and treatment must be voluntary, but establishing a protocol for motivation for compliance is acceptable. This type of review causes more work for a judge. The defendant must return to court each month for proof of compliance and provide evidence of treatment. The judge must rely on community resources to help the defendant succeed. But when there is success, there are nine-months of treatment, counseling, interventions. It’s worth more to the community than the fine.

An example of how the Pima County Justice Court can be effective to resolve community issues occurred when I served as a Pima County justice of the peace from 2008 to 2014. I established a mediation program to resolve neighborhood disputes. Fighting neighbors who were assigned to me were referred to alternative dispute resolution. Rather than issuing a court order that permitted harsh criminal consequences if the restraining order was violated, neighbors were encouraged to discuss their concerns within the protection of the security of the courthouse. My program encouraged the neighbors to talk through their disputes and engage in a “Contract of Civility.” Under current law, if neighbors bicker, one neighbor can obtain a restraining order against the other without notice or an opportunity to be heard. The target neighbor can be ordered not to walk down a common street, go into a store or be prohibited from using common community facilities. Sometimes the restraining orders were appropriate as the disruptive neighbor had evidence of mental illness, but commonly the restraining order was a vindictive tool to shame or shun the other.

The program was very effective when there was evidence of bullying in the schools. Rather than issue a restraining order that essentially put the school into a policing role to assure there was no contact between the children, the court-based mediation program encouraged the families to write out their concerns and create their own solutions for the grievances.

The “Contract of Civility” program was highly successful and effective. It was immediately dismantled once I left the court as a justice of the peace.

In all of campaigns, I ask what have you accomplished? What programs have you created? What wrongs have you corrected? What public forums have you spoken to or for? In other words, what have you done to make the world a better place and not just made your world a better place? What has happened under your leadership? Has anyone you supervised been indicted for income tax fraud while you were in charge?
If the message was that constituents were to vote for someone, rather than against a nominee, then positive politics would be the standard rather than derogatory degrading messaging. If candidates knew that in order to win an election or re-election they had to prove that they had a purpose or won for a purpose, then they might spend their time in office focusing on accomplishments and not need to fuel accusations. If once elected, candidates had to continue to demonstrate their ability to accomplish and that was the only message to be heard by the community, then the public might enjoy learning about the political candidates again. The candidates would use their political position to improve the community they serve rather than position themselves for self-improvement. The campaigns would be positive exchanges of information about how life is better with each of them in the world rather than how much better life would be without the other one on the planet.

Correction: This piece as originally submitted incorrectly stated the financial limit on the jurisdiction for justice courts. Segal noted her error and requested an update.
Anne Segal is running for justice of the peace in JP precinct 1 as an independent. She previously served as a JP from 2008 to 2014 as a Democrat. She is an attorney and has a Ph.D. in Education, Management and Development. She just published a textbook on “Criminal Justice and Mental Health,” one of the first textbooks for first responders to help inform them on strategies for handling people with mental health issues.

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