Police chiefs should push reorganization of courts

If only the Mahoning Valley's police chiefs had spoken up several years ago when the debate over the local court system was raging. In advocating the creation in Mahoning County of a metropolitan court below the Common Pleas level, we said then what the chiefs said last week: the current setup is archaic and ineffective.
There were few public officials willing to stick their necks out when we called for the creation of seven full-time, countywide judgeships to replace the four part-time county court positions and the municipal judgeships in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers.
Indeed, because of the potential political backlash for supporting such sweeping change, a compromise of sorts was proposed by the Mahoning County Corrections Planning Board. As a first step, it would create three full-time county court judgeships to replace the current four.
While state Sen. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, has agreed to shepherd the legislation that would have to be adopted by the Ohio General Assembly to implement the change, the issue hasn't made it out of the county courthouse. County Administrator Gary Kubic had sought a cost-analysis, while the county clerk of courts, Tony Vivo, criticized the planning board for not seeking input from his office.
In January 2002, then state Auditor Jim Petro issued a performance audit of Mahoning County government that, among other things, recommended the elimination of the four part-time county court judgeships and the creation of a countywide metropolitan court system for all the courts below the Common Pleas level.
Duplication of services
In his report, Petro contended that the county would save $256,800 a year in rent payments -- the four county courts are located in Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Sebring -- and end duplication of services.
But there hasn't been the political will to make that a reality.
That is why the position taken last week by the Mahoning Valley Chiefs of Police Association struck a responsive chord. The association called for sweeping changes in the current court system, saying that "a cadre of lifelong, predatory street criminals" is slipping through the cracks.
Such a harsh indictment of the system cannot be ignored.
And perhaps recognizing that change won't come quickly, association chairman Carl N. Frost, Beaver Township police chief, announced that the membership intends to take up the issue of sentencing at its next meeting. Frost said the chiefs would establish minimum sentencing guidelines but acknowledged the judges have ultimate authority.
"Judges will still do what they want to do," Frost said, "but we won't be part of the problem."
Given that the Mahoning County Bar Association has put the court reorganization issue on the back burner, we would urge the police chiefs association to take up the cause of a metropolitan system. The chiefs, more than elected officials, have credibility with the public (read that voters) when it comes to crime and punishment. If they embraced the creation of full-time judges and prosecutors to replace the current archaic system, officeholders would be unable to hide in the weeds.
It's time to modernize the criminal justice system in Mahoning County so that reduced charges and plea-bargained sentences are the exception rather than the rule.