As part of its Municipal Court initiative, GMA conducted two surveys concerning municipal courts: the Municipal Court Survey for City Clerks and the Municipal Court Survey for Municipal Court Judges. Both surveys were designed to identify areas where GMA can provide services and help members reduce existing and potential costs associated with municipal courts. The Judges Survey had the following additional goals: to identify subject matter experts and improve training for elected and appointed municipal officials.
The Judges Survey was developed and administered with the help of the Council of Municipal Court Judges’ Executive Committee and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Through an arrangement with Georgia Southern University, Michael Wedincamp, a candidate for a masters of public administration degree and GMA Practicum student, collaborated with GMA Associate General Counsels Alison Earles and Rusi Patel to analyze the results of the City Clerks Survey by city population.
Representative groups of city clerks (268 responses analyzed) and municipal court judges (121 responses) responded to the respective surveys. They work in cities of all sizes and geographic regions, and for courts that meet at various intervals.
The surveys have already accomplished some of the goals of their creation. Thirty-four municipal court judges volunteered to serve as subject matter experts and training panelists. GMA has incorporated topics and guidance recommended by judges in a three-hour course “Municipal Courts Post-Ferguson: Promoting Justice, Protecting City Assets” at Mayors’ Day and other training events.
- Included Topics for Training: Defendants’ constitutional rights (79% of judges recommend); Independence of the court (70%), Duties of court staff (63%), Court operations (63%); Purpose of the court (60%); reviewing probation providers’ reports/oversight of provider (37%); and Negotiating the probation provider contract (30%).
- Included Guidance for Municipal Courts: 1) Budget appropriately for basic resources needed to run efficient court in compliance with laws (80% of judges recommend); 2) Convey to court staff, probation service providers and police officers that compliance with laws is essential to maintaining the city’s “brand” and preventing lawsuits (58%); 3) Increase indigent defense budget (50%); 4) Use a Solicitor (48%); 5) Pay for judges’ training as required by law (46%); 6) help develop a video and written material for informing defendants of their rights (44%); and 7) use multiple public defenders (32%).
Since July, 2015, judges are required by Georgia probation laws to waive or reduce fines or fees or impose alternative sentences for defendants with “significant financial hardships.” The Administrative Office of the Courts recently issued a bench card to help judges determine whether a defendant has a “significant financial hardship” and ensure compliance with these requirements.
Judges responding to the Judges Survey have experience waiving or reducing fines and fees (89%), imposing community service (91%), imposing training or education (43%), and working with a company that supervises community service (25%). Judges reported the following barriers to imposing alternative sanctions: unable to ensure supervision of the alternative sanction (33%); concerned that alternative sanction will create liability (26%); and alternative sanctions are more expensive than just waiving the fine/fee (23%).
A court case currently before the Eleventh Circuit involves incarceration of an individual who was unable to pay the amount set forth on a bond schedule when an indigency hearing to determine inability to pay was not held within the time period required by law. Judges identified the following barriers to holding a first appearance hearing within 48 hours of arrest:
- Judge is not Timely Notified that Defendant Has Been Arrested (44%)
- Judge is not Physically at the Court (39%)
- Interpreters are not Physically at the Court (32%)
- Interpreters are not Physically at the Court (9%)
Videoconferencing technology may be a useful tool for municipal courts that meet infrequently and need a judge to conduct an indigence or bail hearing immediately. Although it is unclear whether the “high speed internet” reported will support videoconferencing, 91 percent of city clerks reported having access to high speed internet at the court or nearby city offices. (City Clerks Survey). Although only 26 percent of judges reported having experience with videoconferencing, 63 percent stated they would use video-conferencing if it were available and easy to use, especially for determining eligibility for a public defender (35%) and determining inability to pay fine or bail (33%).