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Courts vs. COVID: judicial system caught in unprecedented balancing act

Over the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on virtually every aspect of society.

The justice system has not been exempt, and has been forced to learn new ways to keep the wheels of justice turning in spite of many challenges.

Roseburg Municipal Court Judge Jason Mahan said in a Jan. 25 report to the Roseburg City Council that revenues for the first two fiscal quarters of 2020-21 had fallen 34.5% short of what was budgeted from July 1 to Dec. 31 of 2020. For the fiscal year, the municipal court had budgeted an expected $448,000 in revenue to be generated between fines, court costs and the cost of court-appointed attorneys.

Through Dec. 31, 2020, $154,456 had been recovered, down by nearly $50,000 from the first two quarters of fiscal year 2019-2020.

“There continues to be a reduction in court revenue which is directly related to coronavirus,” Mahan told the council. “The number of individuals failing to appear in court has continued to be high.”

For the calendar year of 2019 (Jan. 1-Dec. 31), the City of Roseburg levied fines totaling $2,289,706 and collected $691,014, a 30% compliance rate. For the same 12 months in 2020, the city issued $1,146,195 in fines and collected $434,131.

While the city’s 2020 collection rate was higher at 38%, it still resulted in a $256,883 shortfall from 2019 to 2020.

While Mahan said he makes it a practice to try and encourage those who come before him to seek treatment for substance or mental health needs, limitations on beds at the Douglas County Jail make it difficult to force people who need treatment to seek it out.

“This is resulting in a larger number of cases not reaching a conclusion, as we are not able to hold defendants who are failing to appear in court,” Mahan said in his report.

Thomas Maxwell is the trial court administrator for Douglas County Circuit Court. He said he has seen the public’s response to how certain cases are handled, but said under the current parameters regarding COVID-19 restrictions, the judicial system has to exercise a level of practicality.

“There’s a certain number of people that go through the system that it’s very difficult to give them fines and have them pay because they don’t have assets to go after (in lieu of payment),” Maxwell said of the public’s perceived “catch-and-release” approach to law enforcement and the judicial system.

“We can’t just throw them in prison for crimes that don’t warrant that,” Maxwell added. “There is a certain ‘revolving door’ system with a certain group of people.”

The financial impacts of the pandemic have not been as extreme for Douglas County Circuit Court as those numbers presented by Roseburg Municipal Court. However, the Circuit Court did see a sizeable drop in fines imposed and monies collected from 2019 to 2020.

In 2019, the circuit court imposed fines totaling $871,372 and collected $569,940, a collection rate of 78.7%. In 2020, the court imposed $428,968 in fines, a decline of nearly $450,000, but actually collected $482,130, the surplus a result of collections actions prior to the start of the pandemic.

Maxwell noted that during the pandemic, the Oregon Legislature has put a moratorium on courts sending those not willing or unable to pay fines through the collections process. That moratorium on collections referrals was enacted on March 30, 2020.

The county has seen a consistent drop in imposed fines and revenues collected since 2017, but its collection rate has hovered between 70% and 80% since 2001. The county does not rely entirely on revenue recovery as a means of successful operation, as the court’s starting operating budget comes from the State of Oregon’s General Fund.

“Our revenue generated doesn’t circle right back into the court,” Maxwell said. “If we have a 30% cut in revenue, it doesn’t mean our budget is cut by 30%. Unfortunately, it’s the state who takes that hit.”

Maxwell said that when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, court systems across Oregon were working to learn how best keep the wheels of justice turning, but under completely different parameters. Those adjustments have led to more virtual hearings — either online or via telephone — and have led to many jury trials being postponed two, three or even four months past their originally scheduled date.

While past postponements of jury trials is part of the natural flow of the legal process, Maxwell said many continuances over the past year were primarily due to COVID-19 and the safety of court staff, defendants, attorneys and juries.

“We have not had nearly as many jury trials as we usually do,” Maxwell said. “Our cases are progressing, but we’re actually settling cases above the state average. We haven’t had any trouble seating juries, and we haven’t had any canceled trials because we were unable to seat a jury.”

At Douglas County Circuit Court, a seated jury will not necessarily be in the same courtroom as the proceedings, but instead will hear arguments and testimony via closed-circuit video from an adjacent room. He said in some cases, a trial that may have called for a 12-person jury was reduced to six jurors as a matter of public safety.

“We have taken all the precautions we can to safely seat a jury,” Maxwell said.

One benefit of the pandemic as it relates to the court system has been courts learning to adapt to new processes when it comes to hearing cases.

When life has an opportunity to return back to normal, Maxwell has found that some of the practices adopted over the past 10 months may come in handy in the future. Remote meetings via computer or telephone could potentially expedite some cases, but also hinder others, especially when it comes to children.

“I keep waiting for that other shoe to drop on COVID, but it keeps stretching on,” Maxwell said. “Last March, April, May, things just ground to a halt.

“Necessity has definitely been the mother of invention for us. We’re all doing things now that 10 months ago we didn’t imagine we would be able to do. Just to survive. Just so we can exist.”

10 facts for today's other holiday: Oregon's birthday

It’s hard to miss: Pink streamers, purple hearts, red roses, and aisles filled with candies, chocolates, cookies, cakes, treats, balloons, cards, frill, and ... well, love.

Feb. 14 is most commonly associated with Valentine’s Day, which is fair since we all started celebrating it back in 496 A.D. after Saint Valentine was — yikes — beheaded for performing secret marriage ceremonies for young couples wanting to wed in defiance of Rome’s loveless Claudius the Cruel. But also because love is easy to get behind, fun to market, and tastes delicious when it takes the form of a chocolate truffle.

Nevertheless, today is also the birthday of one of our beloved friends: The state of Oregon.

In celebration of her 162nd birthday, and because Lindor never responded to our email about developing Oregon’s own celebratory truffle, here’s a list of 10 things we didn’t know about our great state.

1. No one knows how she got her name

The origins of Oregon’s name are unknown. Most scholars cite a 1765 petition from a British explorer looking to fund an expedition that would meander past the Great Lakes, the head of the Mississippi and “from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon.” Others think the name has Spanish origins or came from a sketchy French map published in 1715. Whatever the reason, people from the other 49 states will continue to butcher its pronunciation.

2. Our unique flag

This one may be more commonly known, but it’s too cool. Oregon’s flag is the only U.S. flag with a different design on each side. One side has the escutcheon from the state seal and the other side features a beaver.

3. Growing investments

During the Great Depression, the only bank in North Bend shut its doors stranding the coastal city’s residents without access to their money. In response, the city created its own currency out of myrtlewood, answering the age-old question of whether money grows on trees.

4. Truffles, truffles, truffles

If you’ve read this far you clearly know that we like chocolate truffles. But Oregon is an incredibly popular spot for fungus lovers, too, and is home to the largest mushroom on earth. The honey mushroom, found in the Blue Mountains, measures 2.4 miles across and is thought to be nearly 9,000 years old.

5. Retro Big Macs

Ever dreamt of reminiscing about the good ol’ days in a retro McDonald’s? Well, us either. But you could! Even though the world’s third-oldest Mickey D’s was demolished at the corner of Southeast 91st Avenue and Powell Boulevard in Portland, there’s still a Beaverton location that hasn’t been updated since the ‘80s. This might seem lame, but a story about the old restaurant popped up on Reddit and promptly received tens of thousands of upvotes.

6. Crater Lake

Here’s a twofer. Everyone knows (hopefully) that Crater Lake, at 1,949 feet deep, is the deepest lake in the U.S. But there’s also only one place you can see the lake from outside the national park: The summit of Mount Thielsen.

7. Clint Eastwood the logger

The rugged, fearless and prolific actor-director Clint Eastwood spent a year felling trees and working at Weyerhaeuser in Springfield. In “Sexual Cowboy,” a 1992 Eastwood biography, Eastwood said he was almost crushed to death by a “nasty load of giant logs.” He ducked away unscathed and went on to create “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “American Sniper,” and “15:17 to Paris.”

8. Not everything is bigger in Texas

We have the world’s tallest barber pole, nearly doubling the pole in San Antonio which is second on the list. The pole is 72 feet high, built in 1973, lives in Forest Grove, and... yeah.

9. It’s old

We’re celebrating the 162nd birthday of statehood, but future Oregonians have been walking through our forests for thousands of years. The Paisley Caves were placed on the National Register of Historic Places after 14,300-year-old human DNA was discovered. About an hour up the road, at Fort Rock, a University of Oregon archaeologist discovered sagebrush sandals covered in ash from Mount Mazama’s eruption about 7,700 years ago. The sandals are estimated to be between 9,300 and 10,500 years old.

10. First wiki

The first wiki — called WikiWikiWeb — was developed in Portland in 1994 by Ward Cunningham, who was inspired by a Honolulu International Airport employee who encouraged him to take a “Wiki Wiki Shuttle.” “Wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick.”