Commentary: We elected Joy Goldbaum Presiding Municipal Court Judge because she promised to focus the court on productive solutions – not on being a modern debtors' prison, as too many such courts in the U.S. become.
Municipal Court handles “minor” crimes, mostly violations of city ordinances. Because many defendants are poor, mentally challenged, homeless, and/or vets suffering PTSD, many don't show up for court, or can't pay their fines. Unless they're allowed (and able) to work off the fine, a warrant and a penalty are added to the fine, making it even harder to pay. Too often a defendant who's committed some minor offense ends up in jail – for which the City pays the County $100 per night per prisoner. Raw deal both for citizen and for us taxpayers.
Our Municipal Court has made very limited use of jail alternatives. There's incarceration or probation, and little chance for treatment or other services that could address the actual problems. Everyone benefits if folks convicted of minor code infractions do community service. Only City Codes, the Animal Shelter, and El Caldito are approved for community service.
Judge Goldbaum wants to approve more local non-profits for community service. That would help someone who's really strapped and who may not easily be able to utilize the existing options. Any 501(c)(3) can qualify; and although the City probably has legitimate liability concerns, a wider field of choices would be helpful. The Hub, the bicycle repair center at Cruces Creatives, might be a good one: centrally located, useful work, and a carless “convict” might learn to build her or himself a bicycle.
I'm told the City paid the County $1.2 million for detained Municipal Court prisoners last year. That's an obscene amount. If all that money went to the Detention Center (as opposed to transportation or other expenses), at $100 per night, that'd be 12,000 days in jail, collectively.
Decreasing that figure and minimizing the emotional, financial, and physical toll on folks who are jailed for being poor or disorganized is Judge Goldbaum's top priority, and should be our City's. It'll take creativity and hard work by Goldbaum and the second judge. That second judge often staffs the afternoon when the Court is open for walk-ins; and although afternoons are sometimes slow, being available when a defendant (which could be any of us) can make it could mean avoiding spending several hundred bucks to keep that defendant in jail after a no-show generates a warrant. Clearly, it's important. Work commitments and/or transportation problems prevent some people from reaching court at the scheduled time.
Oddly, the City hasn't announced the process for appointing that second judge. The last time the position was open, the appointment process moved quickly. The second judge position is important to fill soon. Case loads are rising, and the first judge has a host of budgetary and administrative tasks. LCPD is filing more DWIs, which are relatively complex cases, in Municipal Court rather than Magistrate Court. The delay means defendants, attorneys, and city personnel could be waiting around in court too much.
It takes little time or thought to ship someone to jail. It takes much more effort to discern which defendants should be steered toward a solution that doesn’t involve incarceration – and to fashion such solutions to actually work. These are exactly the kinds of improvements many have called for, and we elected Judge Goldbaum to make for our community.