Salem’s Municipal Court (2014)
Notes by Sally Hollemon
Judge Jane Aiken, presiding judge of Salem’s Municipal Court, spoke at the January 29, 2014, forum at the Salem Library. She said that courts are designed to solve society’s disputes in a civil way. The Salem Municipal Court–which covers misdemeanors only within the Salem city limits–handles traffic, code violations, and criminal misdemeanors. She pointed out that more people are injured or killed due to traffic violations than due to criminal activity.
Quality-of-life issues, which take up half of Municipal Court time, include trespass, vagrancy, alcohol in parks and in other public places, urinating in public. Most of the people who commit these crimes are homeless. These offenders miss court dates because they have no transportation or because it’s hard to keep track of court dates without a place to keep a calendar.
An additional group of people who appear before the Court are men and women home from the military. They will say they don’t have PTSD, but they are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. They exhibit anger or disorientation (such as becoming lost in traffic). 17% of Municipal Court cases involve Viet Nam veterans. Judge Aiken said that with the war in Afghanistan winding down, there will be more recent veterans in our community, so it’s important to provide the help they need in the first place, rather than ignoring the problems, as happened after the Viet Nam War.
Court employees try to help connect the people with services–mental-health or alcohol/drug treatment or housing–to solve the basic problems. A person may be assigned an advocate to help him negotiate the court system. The Homeless Connect card provides a Cherriots pass for bus transportation to court. Changes in court schedules aim to make it easier to remember court dates.
Since homeless people don’t have the money to pay fines, the Court often uses community service work instead of a fine or jail time (since the Marion County Jail is full). A few of the people have exhibited such good work skills that they have been given references that led to jobs. If a person from another county is assigned community service, the Court will contact that county and ask for a community service assignment for the person; the Court is then contacted by the other county when the community service has been completed.
Fines: Maximum and minimum fines for each offense are set by the City Council or the Legislature (depending on the offense). Fines may be reduced if a person has a clean record. The Court does not get any of the money from fines; fines are disbursed according to law set by the Legislature, and the portion retained by the City goes into the General Fund.
Judge Aiken said that the Court is working on a project to simplify documents into easily under-standable language and then to translate them into the various languages spoken by residents of the area.