The Court For Bad Decisions

By Russell Ethridge

I am one of thousands of small court judges whose work in the justice system is at the retail level. I move streams of low level offenses through a system that provides little insulation from the jagged shards of life. There are few silk stocking lawyers in my court, and the arguments I hear are hardly esoteric. The largely unsuccessful war on drugs and the ill advised release of the mentally ill have added greatly to my case load, but mostly my Court is about watching life’s bad decisions and bad luck play out for people who already live on the margins. Sure, I handle your neighbor’s drunk driving or domestic violence case, but if you’re reading this, I bet your neighbor had the resources to hire a lawyer, get a good plea deal, pay fines and court costs, and get the treatment du jour that convinced the system that he or she is really an okay person who just screwed up. The rub for small court judges comes from all the other defendants with no resources and few life anchors—and that’s most of them. What kind of justice system do they face? I ask myself that question most court days as I read pre-sentence reports and wait for my clerk to tell me it’s showtime.

What should I do with the 19-year-old shoplifter with three kids by three different men, none of whom live with her or pay child support? She has no job and gets government assistance and claims she can’t pay fines or the cost of the shoplifter diversion class she’s required to attend to keep the offense off her record. Should I ignore that she arrives with an iPhone 6, designer handbag, and great hair and nails? Does she go to jail? If she does, is it because she’s poor or because she has poor priorities? Along with the $40.00 per day jail fee, my community will pay the cost of caring for her kids while she does her 30 days. When she’s released, she still won’t have a life plan.

What do I do about the 20-year-old charged with possession of a joint and his fifth driving on a suspended license charge? He dropped out in 10th grade and literally, I mean literally, has never met his father. He’s worked part-time in fast food, but he lost his last gig due to a “no call, no show” attendance policy and a previous low level charge that got him locked up because he couldn’t post bond. In that instance he was pulled over because his plates didn’t belong to the car he used to get to work. He’s so hopelessly behind in fines, court costs, and state fees that he’ll never get a license which means few job prospects in a town with no mass transit.

Most of the defendants in my court are black, but I sit in enough other courts to know that it is not all about race. Poor decision making knows no color line. Nevertheless, I occasionally have to defend the system to the defendants who claim they were racially profiled by explaining how the police couldn’t see the driver’s skin color at 2:00 a.m. but could see a headlight out and a bad plate. The fact that the driver has an arrest warrant for failing to show up in another court just makes it tougher for me. What bond do I set for someone who has already shown they won’t come to court when ordered? If it’s too high, he will sit in jail and lose his job. If I kick him loose, I may never see him again, at least until he’s stopped in another town and we’re notified that we can pick him up if we want to take two officers off the street to drive across town. The cops call it “catch and release,” just like trout fishing. I tell these defendants that most success in life comes from merely showing up, but it is a lesson I can’t teach in two minutes to someone whose father never showed up.

This dilemma appeared in stark relief in Ferguson, Missouri, where the death of Michael Brown, a black man killed in an encounter with a white cop, triggered riots and a national discussion of small court practice that some call “pay or stay.” The local judge there resigned, and the new judge reportedly dismissed thousands of outstanding arrest warrants that were issued for people who didn’t pay. A Supreme Court ruling years ago made it illegal to jail someone simply because they could not pay a fine, but where is the line? Who really can’t pay and who really won’t pay? Should poverty be a “get out of jail free card” the same way money is, sort of? There are judicial end runs around this such as ordering community service and then jailing those who fail to comply, but those cost money and are hard to supervise. What if your life choices render you poor? Do they also make you dumb? Whose fault is it that you thought having three kids by 19 was a good idea? Why were you driving a car with an invalid license plate with a joint in the ashtray in a world where every cop has a computer in the car? I am not afraid to ask these questions from the bench, but I am regularly met with blank stares from people who apparently haven’t given much thought about anything beyond the next five minutes.  Maybe that’s the problem.

Most of the people who find themselves in my court have limited decision making skills. Is it because they’ve never had the guidance of a parent or a role model who showed up every day and made sure they did too? There are many days when I’m excited that a young man I trusted with probation actually got a job or enrolled in school. I pat myself on the back for my good judgment regarding human character, only then to be smacked on the head with a stack of arrest warrants to sign for those who breached my trust by failing to appear in court. Most days, however, I just clean up the mess of a society that, whether through neglect or good intentions gone wrong, has let the edges of its fabric tatter.

Question: Do we jail too many people in the U.S.?

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23 thoughts on “The Court For Bad Decisions

  1. Jim

    We arrest and jail far to many people in the US. Switch the money from the war on drugs to the war on education. Start holding students accountable for passing/failing by true absolute standards.

    2 years mandatory service to the US government from all citizens of the US. If you are caught as an illegal alien you are either deported or conscripted in for your 2 years of service. The military then recruit permanent employment from all of society.

    For those who can’t/won’t graduate from High School, immediate 2 years service. Military, Ecological work, Medical Work, their is plenty that the could be done to help the US and the world. This would apply to all people, poor, rich, illegal immigrants, etc.

    If you defer to college you have 5 years to obtain your undergraduate degree. If the government pays for college then add on 1 year for every year the government paid for college. Then serve your 2 years in an area of need after college. 2years if you paid your own tuition. Up to 6 years if the government paid 4 years of tuition.

    Every one should serve this country for the privilege of citizenship. This would also devert and correct all the drop outs from school, and work to instill the skills of functioning members of society.

  2. Jake

    We don’t lock enough people up. What ever happened to 3 strikes and your out? If a person is so mind-numbingly dumb, to be in your courtroom more than 3 times, why are they even breathing oxygen? And judges that feel pity for 3rd and 4th time offenders are also part of the problem, by not locking them up. The tone of your blog makes it sound as though your response to locking people up is “what difference does it make?” Well Hillary, it makes all the difference in the world. If there are no consequences, do you really think that is going to change people’s behavior? (After the 19 year old unwed mother gave birth to her second child on the taxpayers dime, why wasn’t her tubes tied?) No, there has to be consequences. If there are no consequences, it is just anarchy. (Ferguson, MO being a prime example) Call me primitive, but once America started promoting Socialism through welfare, Darwin’s theory of evolution was destroyed. The galatically stupid, lazy and uneducated are now free to roam. And those of us smart enough to stay out of your courtroom, are left paying for it. Thanks a lot….

    1. Emily Halgrimson Post author

      You want to handcuff women to a table and tie their tubes???? Are you being serious? That’s what kills me about Conservatives. They want THEIR rights protected, but screw everyone else. Real Christian values we have in this country … Barf. Go buy another gun.

      1. Peggy Koblenzer

        This is not about handcuffs on women and having our tubes tied, but rather about making responsible choices. There is birth control.

      2. Jake

        Emily, your progressive thinking is so advanced (compared to my conservative view), that I’m having a hard time comprehending it. Let me get this straight: You’ll let an irresponsible can’t-keep-her-legs-together welfare mother continue to reproduce, but tying her tubes is barbaric. Yet, you’ll say that same mother also has a “right” to use taxpayer money to abort said baby. And I’m “guessing” you’re also for saving spotted owls – but killing an unborn child is OK. I’m not even religious, but this kind of thinking is fascinating.

  3. Erik

    We jail to many people in the US, for sure. The elephant in the room is the “War on Drugs”. The vast majority of imprisoned citizens are there due to a drug charge. Clearly, no one, and I mean no one, is winning that “war”. The convicts and the cops are in a never ending, non-productive cycle.

    At some point, logic needs to prevail. By making it illegal to use or possess drugs, we drive the whole addiction problem underground. We set up an entire illicit industry to provide drugs to those who use. So we have no idea of the depth and breadth of the drug problem in the country. We just know it’s big, because our jails are overflowing with drug convictions.

    It’s not working. If we had a responsible government, they’d figure it out. Too bad we are “represented” by a platoon of clowns. If we legalized, and regulated the sale of drugs, we would have an idea of consumption, and could get our heads around the scope of the issue. We could collect taxes on their sale to fund a solution to the addiction problem that has dug into this country. We could bring it into the light, as opposed to driving it underground.

    The answer isn’t simple, big problems are never easy. But the status quo clearly DOES NOT work.

  4. HLW

    In many cases, there are no role models for children to observe in living a fruitful life. They can’t dig out because they don’t know what “success” looks like. The generations then pile on top of each other and seek only to exist within their narrow view of the world. The traditional family model has disappeared and although some alternative lifestyles may yield productive members of society, most tend to drop to the lowest common denominator. Combine that with the sense of entitlement that has become widespread and you have a recipe for slow but steady societal decay. The courts are simply a common forum to best witness the carnage. However, this is nothing new – read Jack London’s “People of the Abyss” and you’ll get a flavor for similar conditions in London around the end of the 19th century. Not to be pessimistic, but I believe it is part of the human condition which will always be with us.

  5. Karlo Goerges

    We probably do. So, whats the alternative? This is all of society’s issue. These problems did not start with today’s generation. They had to learn it from a previous generation, whether a lack of morals, standards, taking pride of ownership for things, and the list goes on. Today we react to the so called or perceived problems that society thinks are ill’s. We did away with the so called mental health hospitals/institutions because it was inhumane, but, it was OK to through people to the wolves on the street, and let the strongest survive, is better? Where are the families who cared for them in the past? The government net and other organizations that were suppose to care for the poor and vulnerable? Or reform programs to get people back on there feet? All are out of sinc with today’s ills. These problems have been brewing for a long time, just like the ills in our economic environment. We have as a society been only reacting to these problems and the outcome is appalling. We complain about a skilled worker shortage, and we have 10-20% of our population either unemployed or underemployed with no skills. Where did they go to school, where were their teachers, their parents when they were failing to get an education

  6. Lloyd Graff

    A little background on Russ Ethridge. He is a top notch business lawyer in Detroit and I value him as a friend and as my lawyer. He does the judge gig part time for $12,000. His father was a newspaper editor so he has the writing genes.

    I asked Russ to write this piece and he delivered beautifully, though he threatened me harm if I “screwed with his commas”.

    These are really had issues he deals with on the bench, but knowing Russ he really cares about the people who appear before hm.

    1. Dave(the one who IS here!)

      Lloyd you should get an ‘attaboy’ for giving your friend a platform from which to speak. Now can we keep the conversation going with constructive ideas? We all know things aren’t perfect in this country vis-à-vis the judicial system. But would anyone here wish to live in Syria, Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan?
      If the answer is NO, then let’s get off our collective backsides and make our country a better place. It cannot happen simply by wishing it

  7. Frank J. Bender

    The moral breakdown of society began when California decided to have no-fault divorce and then spread to the rest of the states. We have to thank all the liberal progressives for fundamentally changing our constitutional republic into the soft socialistic society we are now experiencing. What do you expect when the loud liberal progressives are given their way because they dominate the media. I fear it may be too late to turn things around. We need to start by reforming our public education system and get back to teaching the constitution, American history and above all else–citizenship. Then we can begin to reform the courts, the welfare state and the political environment back to what our founding fathers established for this country of ours in the first place. God Bless America!.

  8. Judd Ferrin

    In the context of this article I do not think that we jail too many. In the broader context of the number of people in jail I think that we need to start looking at who we are mad at and who we are afraid of. I’m not afraid of the 19 year old shop lifter or the hipster who’s rendered him/herself dumb by smoking too much weed. I don’t believe that our society can sustain a system where three strikes puts you away for 30 years especially when none of the three strikes is a violent crime. With that said I have a strong belief in education and as I look at the world through my rose colored glasses I think that somehow we can develop a system that teaches some folks the concept of responsibility. I believe there is a way to teach people the concept that there are logical consequence’s to every decision we make. I suspect that some type of mandatory detained education system has got to be much cheaper than the jail alternative. This way it will free the police up to focus on going after those that we’re afraid of.

  9. Paul Johnston

    You want to decrease the workload? That’s easy. Stop arresting and fining people when there is no victim. That is a good place to start. From my perspective, all I see is a bunch of socialist “hogs” gobbling up the slop while having an illusion that they are better than the ordinary man who doesn’t rely on taxmoney and actually produces. Including you.
    I know what I’m talking about. Last year I had everything I owned stolen from my 3 acre homestead. After the smoke cleared, the result was that I lost more money reporting the theft. I lost $100 gran and you retarded assholes on every level screwed me and didn’t do jack shit for me. Not one dollar, nothing, I got for everything I owned. You people suck. Good, honest people don’t deserve to live in a shit hole like the United States of America with non-existant justice. There is a reason why everything is made complicated. Hell, less than 10% of the practicing lawyers even know how to write a writ of mandamus or a writ of certiorari, let alone pronounce it. There is no will to fix anything that benifits the taxpayer and you know it because that is where your paycheck comes from as well as all of your pig friends with their “bankers hours” jobs. .

  10. Peggy Koblenzer

    Well said. There are no easy answers. It is such a complicated mess. You get up every day and just do your best. That is all you can do.

  11. Donnie

    A good place to start is a DNA sample and Drug Test to receive government assistance of any type. The next step should be a mandatory 40 hour work week for able bodied Americans. You work 40 hours you will soon be too tired to be a screw up.

  12. David Bradley

    As I see it, there really are no consequences for crime. Prison needs to be a place that no body, I mean absolutely nobody, should ever want to go. But it’s not that bad going to prison. Play games, watch tv, get a college degree, do what ever you want for free. You are fed well, and medical needs are better than those of us on the street can get. Maybe we need to go back to making small rocks out of big ones inside the prisons and a 40% chance of not getting out alive.

  13. Dave(the one who IS here!)

    Wow! Interesting discussion – the truth however is always somewhere in the gray zone.
    OK – kid who never met his dad – why does our society allow the total arrogance of a man who fathers a child and disappears – gee really responsible buddy! You need to meet the mother of your child out behind the woodshed for some real ‘family time’
    19 year old with 3 kids/no fathers – this is NOT about reproductive rights; this is about the loss of values in our society. Should she be sterilized – NO – not our decision. Should she and the fathers be penalized for being irresponsible – HELL YEA!
    When I first read this I was going to question Lloyd as to what this latest post has to do with machining, but in retrospect it has everything to do with it. An underclass that thinks it can slip through the cracks of society will not produce the next generation of skilled & semi-skilled workers that we all need, including Lloyd’s business.
    Best thing that can happen is this discussion become very public and very loud, so our elected fools(officials) hear y’all. Change will only happen if enough people recognize there is a need and then voice their opinion in a public forum

    So, what are we going to do about it?

  14. Skip

    Root cause. Before we can determine any possible solutions, the root cause must be determined.
    Is it 1. Decline of the family/marriage system? 2. Lack of comprehensive mental health services/care? 3. War on drugs? 4. Failure to address the widespread child sexual abuse problem? 5. Inadequate educational system? 6. combination of these and/or other possibilities?
    For those of us that grew up in households with unconditional love and parents teaching a moral compass of right and wrong, we have no way of going back, changing those variables and seeing how we would have turned out. There are always exceptions on both sides of the coin, but I believe the reasons listed above are the roots of our current problems. Until we agree on root causes, we are spinning our wheels.

  15. David

    Great piece by a thoughtful guy. If Russ is representative of our judicial system we are in good shape.

    My thoughts:
    We are jailing the wrong people (minor drug offenses, etc.) not just too many.
    No bankers went to jail. None! Hard to understand unless you believe that our democracy has been hijacked.


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