For many people, the Bellingham Municipal Court is simply the place they paid that unfortunate parking ticket. However, the court is also an important, independent branch of local government that promotes access to justice, protects public safety, solves problems and ensures justice in a quiet, impartial and efficient manner that may go unnoticed.
The Bellingham Municipal Court truly is the people's court, the place where matters ranging from parking tickets to domestic violence charges and driving under the influence cases are decided. While most citizens are not involved in criminal behavior, the majority of the court's approximately 12,000 hearings per year relate to criminal cases, not infractions. However, all types of cases demand access to justice. The court's hard-working and highly-trained staff has made the court more user-friendly over the last decade. The court hears many infraction cases online or by mail. Citizens use the internet to learn about court procedures, print court forms, request fine reductions and pay fines.
The Municipal Court does not hear felony cases, however, some of the people charged with crimes may pose a serious danger to the public. The court must balance the rights of the accused with public safety. The court uses numerous tools to protect the public, including pretrial and post-conviction probation services, drug and alcohol testing, ignition interlock devices and frequent judicial review of probation compliance. The court worked with the mayor, city council and police department to ensure that witnesses, jurors, victims and others are safer by providing weapons screening and courtroom security. The court also protects private property by ordering convicted offenders to pay restitution to crime victims.
When the court sets bail, conducts jury trials, decides motions and otherwise adjudicates cases, it must follow the applicable laws. However, those laws also grant the court considerable discretion about how to solve problems. The court created the first specialized domestic violence calendar in the area to focus the efforts of all participants by addressing these very difficult cases in a way that reduces violence and encourages healthy relationships.
Many less serious cases involving first-time offenders, such as underage drinking and shoplift, are resolved by diversion programs requiring community service and educational programs or through a process called a "compromise of a misdemeanor," which requires restitution and court costs to be paid. In cases where drug and alcohol abuse contributes to dangerous criminal behavior, the court requires evaluations which may recommend intensive treatment. The court oversees frequent monitoring to deal with this root cause of crime.
While most of the court's costs, such as the cost of assigning counsel to indigent people, are required by law, the court works creatively to use public resources efficiently. The court allows convicted offenders, who are deemed eligible by the Whatcom County jail, to participate in jail alternative programs such as work crew, reducing overcrowding and jail expenses. Many non-violent offenders must perform community service, promoting accountability and the public interest. The court's assigned counsel program has been recognized as a model and operates so efficiently and effectively that since 2008 the state has awarded approximately $750,000 in competitive grants to the court. While these and many other changes save local taxpayers money, they also reflect a commitment to improve the delivery of judicial services on a daily basis.
Improving the courts takes time, but every step towards a more just legal system is a step in the right direction. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
As I enter my next term, I plan to continue to work with staff, citizens, attorneys and the other branches of city government to improve our court. We look to improved technology to transform the court to a paperless court. We are working closely with city and county leaders to create a mental health court that will better address the large problem of crimes committed by the mentally ill in a manner that is more just, efficient and humane than traditional approaches. By working within the law to make justice accessible, protect the public, solve problems and operate efficiently and effectively, the Bellingham Municipal Court will continue to serve as a modern municipal court.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debra Lev was elected the city's first municipal court judge in 2001. She is unopposed in this year's election for another four-year term. Vote-by-mail ballots will be mailed Oct. 19 and the general election is Nov. 5.