Chief Justice hears from public, addresses concerns
By Kelby Newcomb
Arkansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp visited with legislators, circuit and district judges and court personnel Friday at the Carroll County Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville.
Kemp said the listening session was part of a tour he makes of all the judicial districts in the state.
“One of the things I wanted to do when I became Chief Justice was to visit each of the judicial districts,” he said. “There are 28 districts, and this is the 24th I’ve visited.”
Kemp said he has three main purposes in making these visits.
The first, he said, is to thank all of the judicial officers for the excellent job they do.
“You’re on the front lines seeing people every day that come through our court system,” Kemp said. “The perception that people have of our court system is a result of your treatment of the people who come through our courts.”
A study conducted by the National Center for State Courts, he said, revealed that 78 percent of people were satisfied with the way they were treated in Arkansas courts.
“I think that speaks well of our court system, particularly for the clerks, the judges and the bailiffs,” he said. “If you can satisfy four out of five people in the public, I think you’re doing a good job. That speaks well to what you’re doing, and I encourage you to keep up the good job.”
The second reason for the visit, Kemp said, is to find out what problems local courts might be having and work on addressing those issues.
He said that’s why he brought Marty Sullivan, executive director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, with him.
“He’s here to administer the court system and make it effective,” Kemp said. “When the Supreme Court named him as director a couple of years ago, he pointed out that Arkansas did not have a strategic plan for our judicial branch.”
As a result, he said “Delivering Justice: A Vision for 2025” was developed for the state.
“In that, we are looking at where we want the court system to be in another six years,” Kemp said. “We’ve got to look at automation in our court system. One of the efforts we’re making in this current legislative session is to start gradually increasing the productivity of our automation system.”
He said they hope to have electronic filing systems in courts statewide before 2025.
“We need to keep up with the business world,” Kemp said. “It seems like we’re always a step behind. We need to be automated and go to electronic filing. That’s something I’ve urged that Carroll County look at and make that application.”
He said the strategic plan for the judicial branch also includes being more transparent, having better communication with both the public and other branches of government and increasing court security.
Pete Hollingsworth, director of court security and emergency preparedness, said each county has a local court security committee that can apply for grants to improve security measures. Not all of the grant monies were awarded last year, he said, so there is $370,000 available to counties this grant period.
“Carroll County’s [local court security committee] hasn’t been updated since they were last awarded a grant in 2011,” Hollingsworth said. “Carroll County is ripe for an award with an application submitted and some plans updated.”
He continued, “Those committees are chaired by the county judge and a circuit judge that’s either an administrative judge or is someone appointed by the administrative judge to serve as a co-chair.”
Applications for the current grant period are due May 1, he said.
The third reason for the visit, Kemp said, is to give an update on the state of the judicial branch in Arkansas.
In addition to adopting a strategic plan for the judicial branch and modernizing technology systems, he said the judicial branch has re-instituted the Arkansas Courts and Community Initiative.
“One of my pet peeves is a lack of civics education compared to when I was growing up,” Kemp said.
He said the initiative has court staff visiting civic groups and school groups to educate communities about the court system. So far, he said, 65 presentations have been made in 53 or Arkansas’s 75 counties.
Kemp said the judicial branch is also working on specialty court programs, such as drug courts, driving while intoxicated (DWI) courts, junior drug courts and veterans’ treatment courts.
“The general assembly is looking at how to address some criminal issues,” he said. “With overcrowding in the prison system, you have to look at other alternatives rather than building more prisons.”
Kemp said the judicial branch will soon hear back on an evaluation conducted by the National Center for State Courts studying the recidivism rates for people who successfully completed programs like drug court.
“The first evaluation will give us a baseline look at two to three years after a person successfully completes a program,” he said, “to find out whether they have re-offended or not. Right now, we have 43 drug courts throughout the state. I’d like to see it expanded to all 75 counties.”
Kemp continued, “In my experience as a circuit judge, they were effective in keeping people out of prison and keeping them in their home communities, working and supporting their families.”
He said the Department of Justice is also cracking down on fines, fees and court costs being used to support the court system financially.
“They pointed out to us — and I think it’s obvious to everyone — if you have court employees who are funded by these fines and fees and costs,” Kemp said, “then it doesn’t look good if a judge is imposing these fines and trying to collect these fines, which are going to pay employees in the court system.”
He said the Department of Justice is encouraging states to get away from these fines, fees and costs to fund the court system and fund it out of general revenues.
“That way you can’t have that impression that judges are just imposing fines to pay for the court staff,” Kemp said.
Public Defender Beau Allen asked if there are any extra public defenders on the horizon for local courts.
“I’m the public defender for Carroll County,” he said, “and it would make my job a lot more efficient.”
Kemp said there are a few more being added but not as many as are needed.
“I recognize the need for that,” he said. “I think it’s recommended 150 cases a year maximum for each public defender. We have some who take on 300 to 400 or more. It’s not fair to the people they represent. I think eventually that’s going to be an issue. It’s something that needs to be addressed.”
“You mentioned specialty courts,” Allen said. “I didn’t hear you mention mental health courts.”
“That’s something new that’s just being developed,” Kemp said. “I’m not sure how many we have in operation. That is another avenue to address problems.”
Allen said mental health courts would be a big help, especially for his clients.
“It’s hard to find a mental health facility for someone to go where it’s not just three to seven days where they get them on medication and let them back out,” he said.
For many of his clients in drug court, Allen said if they had someone making sure they took their medication then a lot of crimes would be prevented from taking place.