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Court will double days it hears cases

Based on a request from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, Ashland Municipal Court is gearing up to double its court days and add video arraignments from the Jackson County jail in response to continuing concerns about "downtown behavior.”

The court will be open for hearings two days per week, up from one, and will install cameras at a cost of between $3,000 and $5,000, making video arraignments from the Jackson County Jail possible.

The suggestion comes as a way of dealing with citations for smoking in public, violating the city’s sidewalk rules about congregating, littering and disorderly conduct, as well as camping or sleeping in public places, according to the architects of the plan.

“Ashland’s reputation is easy-peasey all along the I-5 corridor,” said attorney Allen Drescher, referring to homeless people. “They tell each other to come here.”

Drescher worked on the proposal as part of the Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee. The cameras will come out of the city’s police budget, giving it “another tool in the tool kit” to discourage traveling homeless people from being in Ashland and cited for misdemeanors.

“It is to act as a deterrent," Drescher said. "What you have to have is a system which has a reasonable chance to go to jail.”

Even though Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara was quick to point out a single misdemeanor citation does not garner jail time, failing to appear will lead to a warrant. Three such failures would result in jail time, according to the unveiling of the plan at a City Council study session Monday by Drescher, Assistant City Attorney Doug McGeary and Judge Pam Turner.

As to why the chamber is behind the greater incarceration plan, Drescher answered, “behavior problems downtown adversely affect business.”

McGeary told councilors during the briefing Monday that he believes adding more court days and arraignments from jail will lead to jailing more people, which he agreed would be a deterrent.

“Right now we’re not using those jail beds (rented from the Jackson County Jail for $72,000) often. When we don’t use them, we don’t pay, but this would allow us to house more people for violations,” McGeary told the council.

“I wish we could have the entire Jackson County Jail, but that’s not going to happen,” McGeary told the assembled council. “I agree we need to have a persistent enforcement policy.”

Ashland Municipal Court Judge Pam Turner addressed the council as well, saying she is willing to try what she referred to as a pilot program to see whether adding more arraignment days and video arraignments from jail would be effective.

“The goal is to get more people to come to court.”

Turner cautioned, however, that jail time must be used judiciously. “What we’re talking about is pre-conviction. They have not been convicted of anything and they’re being incarcerated,” Turner told the council. “You shouldn’t keep people in jail if they haven’t been convicted. This is a heavy decision.”

Turner also suggested that there is national attention around jailing people who cannot afford bail.

“You have to take into account a person’s ability to pay bail. If one person can afford to pay and another cannot, you have to consider that. It violates the equal protection clause if they can’t afford bail.”

She also raised the issue that if Ashland is fully using its two beds for misdemeanor citations, primarily committed by the homeless, then those held on more serious crimes have fewer beds available in the Jackson County Jail.

“Our defendants are on the low end of the crimes. Our most serious, even resisting arrest, doesn’t measure up to selling heroin.”

The council, as Mayor John Stromberg pointed out, does not control what goes on in court. Councilor Greg Lemhouse asked whether the council needed to approve the expenditure for the cameras and court costs, and the mayor said it did not.

Meantime, co-chair of the Citizens Budget Committee Garrett Furuichi released a document Tuesday claiming the costs of Ashland’s court were, on a per-case basis, much higher than those of Jackson County or Medford and suggested that, rather than having more arraignment days, the Ashland court be closed.

In his analysis he claims the cost of each court filing in Ashland is $114.64 as compared to $27.55 in Jackson County and $35.28 in Medford.

“A strong case can be made that the cost of keeping a municipal court is too expensive for a city of our size,” said Furuichi.

The start date of the pilot program has not been determined.

“You’d see word spread up and down the I-5 corridor that Ashland is not such an easy touch,” concluded Drescher.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.