January took Leadership Central Penn participants to court for some education on our proactive judicial system in Columbia and Montour Counties. The morning kicked off with some morning motivation provided by Tina Welch with Welch Performance Consulting. The highlight was a class participant sharing her story of adoption of her children presided over by the day’s first presenter, the Honorable Thomas James, President Judge of the Columbia County Court of Common Pleas.
Judge James gave a presentation titled “The Cost of Justice” and walked the group through not only the financial costs, but the societal and cultural costs many of us don’t think about related to our judicial system. He spoke about some of the many innovative judicial programs like drug and DUI treatment court, veterans court, electronic monitoring home detention program and juvenile court wood-cutting program for restitution. Programs like the electronic monitoring program have saved the county $1.68 million in six years as opposed to incarceration. Courts are constantly being tasked with controlling costs, while legislatures continues to pass more laws to be enforced, with no additional funding to do so.
Once the class learned of all the costs of simple infractions like speeding tickets and the like, it realized the courts bills look a lot like those cell phone bills that everyone knows. A quote summed up how the group felt. “If you love the law and if you love scrapple, you shouldn’t watch either being made.”
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent with the Honorable Gary Norton, Judge of the Columbia County Court of Common Pleas, and Columbia County Assistant District Attorney Dan Lynn. They walked through a recent murder case from Columbia County that has been completely closed with all appeals exhausted, sparing the group some of the more gruesome details. The class learned about crime scenes, evidence processing, motions, discovery, the various pretrial hearings, and got to see into the minds of a jury. This was not 12 angry men and women, although there may have been a few in the class after what was learned about the case. One thing that was most surprising was a motion by the defense that was denied, but which eventually led to the basis of the motion being used for a full defense. Had the motion been upheld, everyone wondered what sort of defense would have been offered.
It was realized that cases don’t wrap up in a nice bow and are not as straight forward as television programs would have us believe. In some courts, you cannot even refer to the person who was murdered as the “victim.” The court’s job is to provide a fair and impartial hearing and that all are innocent until proven guilty. Some felt this marginalized the victim, but it was to ensure an impartial trial for the person. No one wants to put an innocent person in prison, and our system does its best to preserve the freedoms we all love in the U.S.
After the case discussion, the class was introduced to Fred Hunsinger, Columbia County public safety director, and he spoke about all the work being done to be prepared for a worst-case scenario in our area. Whether it is a flood, ice dam on the river, a runaway government blimp with a razor sharp steel wire dragging behind, or a nuclear accident, there are people at the ready to leap into action at the Columbia County Emergency Management Service (EMS) center. These are normal everyday people, that when called upon, will coordinate military, private and civilian resources to tackle any disaster. It is up to us to be prepared. The Ready PA app, and website are two resources that families may find helpful to be prepared for emergencies.
The day was finished with a tour of the Columbia County EMS and newly-consolidated Columbia/Montour 911 center. Here the group saw that when 911 is called from a cell phone, technology helps pinpoint the call’s location. While it won’t get first responders to you directly, it helps narrow the field. The 911 operators really are superheroes in headsets. This was one where television just might have it right. They deliver babies in cars along I-80, help people keep loved ones alive with basic life support and CPR, and help police track and catch reckless drivers – all over the phone. They even get calls about people’s microwaves not working or with questions about parades and toy donations. They do it all with professionalism, recognition attributed to first responders and grace.