Revamped St. Helens court focuses on accountability
The future of the St. Helens Municipal Court and the need to revise its operations has been a topic of conversation among St. Helens city councilors since early 2017, when a review of court finances showed expenses were outpacing revenue.
That year, new processes were implemented to generate more revenue to cover court costs. And in 2018, a change in court staffing, including the city's contracted judge and city prosecutor, brought about a variety of procedural adjustments.
The city's goal has been to create a municipal court system that works effectively and efficiently, while still meeting offenders' — court staff and others frequently refer to them as "clients" — constitutional rights and needs.
"Most people who come through the court system are not bad people. They are people who make mistakes and it's about helping them recover from that, and also helping the community," said Municipal Court Judge Amy Lindgren.
Among the procedural revisions, court staff can now arrange for video arraignments rather than having officers transport clients back and forth from municipal court to the jail, which can be time-consuming and costly for St. Helens Police Department officers.
The court now keeps separate files for the prosecutor and defense attorneys to view on a case, a new practice. The City Council also recently approved the purchase of new software anticipated to improve efficiencies.
Staff is also refocused on accountability.
"I think one other thing that we're changing, or a positive change we're already making, is holding people accountable for the terms, or completing the terms of their probation," Lindgren said.
Lindgren has set up probationary reviews with clients processed through municipal court to ensure they are on track to complete court-ordered treatment plans. The goal of setting up a check-in system is twofold: to help people in the community and hold clients accountable. In larger counties, law enforcement agencies often have probationary officers on payroll. But with limited staffing in St. Helens, it's not always practical or possible to assign someone to that task.
Now the court can step in.
Jennifer Myrick, a defense attorney, said taking the extra step to hold clients accountable for completing probation is somewhat of an unusual step for municipal courts.
"It's rare for courts to really keep tabs on folks. Especially because some people have yearlong probation or whatnot and to have someone be reminded every 90 days, 'Hey you have these things coming up.'" Myrick said. "I don't know of any other courts that do that."
Court staff are also in the early stages of setting up a partnership with Columbia Community Mental Health. Julia Jackson, executive director of CCMH, explained that one day per month a clinician will be at the court to work with clients who need assessments and intake evaluations after they have been court-referred for treatment.
"This is a way to bridge the gap and make sure folks do actually get in and do what they need to do to get enrolled in treatment," Jackson said. "And it closes that line of communication, so that we have a more direct route to inform the courts about who's engaging in treatment and who isn't, with the client's consent."
City Prosecutor Sam Erskine has also been integral to the court's transformation, noting he has caught up on a backlog of cases held in limbo under the former prosecutor's watch. Some court cases didn't even have future court dates set. Erskine has been working to get those cases back on track.
"All I know is that there were cases that never had a future court date," Erskine said. "That was one of our biggest priorities, was to get those cases moving again."
There have been other staffing shakeups. Riki Thompson, who previously worked as a court clerk, resigned in early February. Erskine has taken on secretarial tasks for the prosecutor's office that were previously handled by Thompson, and Melanie Payne has transitioned to cover court clerk duties.
The court is also getting back into scheduling jury trials when needed. In the past, trials were infrequent, Lindgren said.
Previously, clients didn't have many options when it came to court-appointed attorneys. Some clients proceeded without legal advice and didn't understand the entire process. Lindgren has helped recruit and attract a small pool of defense attorneys to consult with court clients.
The addition of court-appointed defense attorneys is one reason Lindgren cites for the likelihood of more jury trials — with counsel, clients better understand their rights and the process.
"Many people were not being appointed lawyers. That's one reason. So people aren't represented. They don't know how to get police reports and they don't know how to really assess a police report whether or not a plea is in their best interest. So I think that a large part of it, is that people are being adequately represented," she said.