Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

March 16, 2013

Sausage making and the courts

By Janet Jacobs
Corsicana Daily Sun

— So, the court backlog story finally ran. I’ve been working on that sucker for three weeks, so I have to admit to some relief that it’s finally out in print.

I don’t usually talk about how the sausages are made here at the Daily Sun, but I thought I’d give credit where credit was due.

Doing a story about the county court at law was not my idea. For that, you can look to Dr. Ray Carroll, who asked me about it months ago. And then every time he ran into me he said something along the lines of “hey, you need to look at the court numbers.”

Basically, giving me a kick in the seat of my pants every couple of months. Eventually even I got the hint.

At first, I got just the criminal numbers, then I went back and got everything, then I went back and got them all again, based on the argument that I must have done something wrong.

Feel free to skip this brief explanation of sausage-making, but just in case you’re curious: I was looking at four reports for each court for each month. On each report are about three or four dozen totals, one of which is the “docket total,” and one of which is “end of the month” total. I was using (duh) docket numbers but was informed I should be using the end of the month numbers.

That’s why I redid everything.

Anyway, I have no explanation for how the numbers came out. I was puzzled. Pretty much everyone else was, too. In the abstract, the idea of having a second court makes sense. I got a lot of reasons for why the numbers didn’t go down. They’re in the main story, you should read it. That’s why journalism is a fascinating job to me — I get to put my nose into other people’s business and sometimes we’re all surprised, including me.

But the fact is that this isn’t like making waffle-irons. Justice in America is an old-fashioned service kind of industry. You might get better service at your favorite restaurant than I do because you’re a regular, but in the eyes of the courts we’re all equal, and our society builds in safeguards to make sure of it.

We could do it more efficiently. We could rush stuff through, demand more plea bargains, or even create a piece of software in which you enter the details of the crime and it spits out a penalty, but no dice. Our system provides an opportunity for you to explain that, hey, you were having a bad year that day, and besides it wasn’t your fault and why.

I’ve never been to jail, but I’m scared to death of the mere notion of losing my freedom. Every time I cover a trial, that’s what I’m thinking about: What if it were me?

So the numbers aren’t where the prognosticators promised. But if you’re the one on trial, it’s better that the judge is thinking about two things and two things only: Your freedom and our safety.

I pulled the numbers. I crunched the numbers. I know what they represent. But when it comes to the court system, my personal thought is that the numbers be damned.

            —————

Janet Jacobs is City Editor of the Corsicana Daily Sun. Her column runs on Saturdays. She may be reached by email at jjacobs@corsicanadailysun.com. Want to “Soundoff” on this column? Email: soundoff@corsicanadailysun.com