Eight years ago, Jackson County officials responded to an unacceptably high number of traffic deaths by creating a self-funding Justice Court District, with its own judge, to handle traffic cases. But now the Oregon Legislature has meddled with the system, threatening to demolish something that has been working very well.
The 2012 Legislature passed a bill removing a $45 surcharge on traffic fines that had gone to the county to help pay for the court. The legislation also increased from $37 to $60 the amount of each fine that is paid to the state.
The money the state receives comes back to Jackson County, but goes to state programs such as mediation and court security.
The result of all of this is the county now must subsidize the Justice Court and the Sheriff's Department Traffic Team to the tune of $500,000 a year, which it cannot afford to continue doing. County commissioners say they will close the court next fiscal year if the situation is not resolved. That would dump 15,000 traffic cases into Jackson County Circuit Court, which already handles one of the heaviest caseloads in the state.
The Justice Court system ought to appeal to anyone who thinks government should run more efficiently. When Sheriff Mike Winters went to the commissioners in 2004 to propose the new court, he showed them alarming statistics on the number of traffic fatalities and injuries.
Twenty-nine people had died in motor vehicle crashes in 2003 compared with 21 deaths in 2002, and between 55 and 60 percent of those deaths involved drinking and driving. The statewide average was 40 percent.
The number of fatalities peaked at 32 in 2005, but has been significantly lower since then. In 2009, just 16 people died in 14 crashes.
The Justice Court has performed its function for eight years without relying on tax dollars — until the Legislature got involved.
We understand the state is strapped for money, too. Certainly mediation programs and court security are important functions. But pulling money out of the Justice Court — Judge Joe Charter calls it "the squeeze" — and swamping Circuit Court with traffic cases is not the way to go about it.
The county plans to propose amending the legislation in 2013 to more evenly divide the proceeds with the state.
Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, says lawmakers knew when they worked on the legislation that it would need to be adjusted.
It's time to adjust it.