I am passionate about justice in Missoula and making Justice Court function as well as possible. Missoula County justice courts have physically expanded with new facilities and are improving. More than just bricks and mortar, the new courtrooms are hardwired to capitalize on improving technology for Missoula County to join the digital age of Montana state courts. Technology can enhance community safety, improve community collaboration with the court, and reduce waste.
Presently, Missoula’s justice courts have no record of the proceedings: there is no stenographer, recording mechanism, or record to be reviewed. Technology can help create a record that improves courtroom efficiency and saves Missoula money. The Justice Court could create documents on a tablet, save the document to the court’s digital file, and provide an e-copy or hard copy to parties – just like we already do at local businesses around Missoula. This will streamline the court process in Justice Court.
Technological advances can enhance community safety. Digital copies of public court documents can be viewed by dispatch, alerting officers if a person is violating written court-imposed conditions. Those conditions may be printed for defendants to take home from court. Proper documentation ensures a clean conviction record for appellate review. This is a positive step forward. Past practices of Missoula’s City Court before 2011 resulted in many unconstitutional convictions. Reversals of these convictions undermined felony cases because prior convictions could not be utilized in determining the number of repeat offenses an individual had: domestic violence is not a felony until it is a third offense and DUI is not a felony until it is a fourth offense. Unsound and reversed convictions result in new offenses being charged as misdemeanors when the gravity of the offense should have required the harsher penalty permitted for a felony. Technology can ensure a written record exists so repeat offenders are treated as felons when necessary, enhancing community protection, and protecting the innocent.
Technology may also improve community collaboration with the court. One drain on court resources is failures to appear in court when someone has a ticket. Improved communication between the court and an individual’s cellphone would allow the court to send a cellular reminder for these appearances. This should result in fewer missed appearances, translating into economic and resource savings: Warrants will not be issued when someone fails to appear and the court will not constantly be rescheduling appearances. Digital communication extends to jurors too. Jurors could receive a text message letting them know the status of jury duty to help them schedule – or cancel – their public service. Given the personal sacrifices citizens make to complete their public service, the court could take steps to be as accommodating as possible regarding jury duty.
Fully utilizing technology could allow court service to be expanded into other areas too. A truly digital court could be held anywhere, including Seeley Lake. With a significant Missoula community an hour drive from the courthouse, our citizens will benefit from exploring how Justice Court could periodically conduct business in Seeley Lake.
With hard work and leadership, my research of these technological issues leads me to conclude Missoula County can make this vision a reality. City Councilman Ed Childers gave me sage advice: “don’t spend any money.” Missoula City Court is already working to implement some of these efficiencies. The next justice of the peace should learn which changes have been successful in City Court and what could be implemented in Justice Court. It will be vital for Missoula’s next justice of the peace to have a positive working relationship with Missoula city court to ensure the improvements to our community are a coordinated effort.
I am always looking at how I can be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. As Missoula’s next justice of the peace, I will carry that approach to the court and explore some of these enhancements. Since declaring my candidacy in March of 2013, I have established bridges that will help implement these enrichments. I want our justice court system in Missoula County to be best it can for the citizens of Missoula. Citizens casting a vote for me are not just electing the next justice of the peace, they are investing in Missoula’s future.
Matthew Lowy is a candidate for Missoula County Justice of the Peace.