May 12, 2003 11:00 pm

Local justice court

worth pursuing

As state funding for counties shrinks, county commissioners are being forced to think outside the box to find ways to provide services with greater efficiency.

Union County commissioners, with the help of new District Attorney Martin Birnbaum, are looking at implementing a con-cept that has proven successful in other Oregon counties.

The idea is to create a justice court. This approach could funnel hundreds of thousands of local dollars, which have been going to Salem, back to local government to use for law enforcement. It would greatly reduce the number of cases heard in the state-run circuit court. This concept is a winner. It's worth pursuing.

The idea is that a single justice court would handle all speeding tickets handed out by law enforcement officers throughout the county. It is also possible that minor misdemeanors and even some less critical felonies could be handled by a justice court.

The justice court's presiding judge could be a local lawyer or someone else the commissioners felt was qualified to do the job. According to the district attorney, there were more than 8,200 traffic citations issued in this county last year. Under the current system, the money is split between the state and the county or local jurisdictions. With a justice court, all the money would stay in the county.

In a time when law enforcement budgets are shrinking dramatically, this potentially could provide the stimulus for all police agencies in the county to have a solid funding mechanism in place to keep officers on the streets. What we wouldn't want is for local law enforcement agencies to think that this is their new meal ticket, and suddenly there are 16,000 tickets written each year. It's doubtful this would happen.

The areas in Oregon that already have justice courts in place, Malheur and Tillamook counties, have offered to help Union County get its justice court up and running. Learning from the experiences of others can be valuable in reducing expenses and avoiding heartaches.

And for those of you who think La Grande would be the beneficiary in snagging another government program, state regulations require that the justice court be housed outside the county seat. This creates an opportunity for another community, like Island City or Union, to play a role in providing area residents with a justice system that is truly countywide.

We commend the work that Birnbaum and County Commissioner Steve McClure have done toward creating a justice court. Both individuals have been forced by the financial crisis brought on by Oregon's recession to look for ideas that will work for their constituents. Both see how this idea can work effectively for our county and are stepping forward to try to make it happen.