Rural justice affects many, but may serve few
More than 55 million Americans get their justice off the main road. For them, the law is meted out in rural courthouses often presided over by part-time judges, argued by inadequately trained lawyers, and administered by overworked and underpaid court clerks. Consequently, the process is sometimes more convenient than constitutional, more community-oriented than concerned with individual rights, and particularly stacked against women, minorities, the poor -- and ``outsiders.''Skip to next paragraph
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These are the conclusions of a little-publicized but highly respected series of studies being conducted by the New Hampshire-based Rural Justice Center (RJC). The results coincide with other assessments made by judicial scholars, social activists, and legal experts.
``There's a lack of an independent judiciary and a weak adversary process [in many parts of rural America],'' says social activist Kathryn Fahnestock, one of the co-founders of RJC. ``Community knowledge is substituted for the Constitution,'' she says.
Maurice D. Geiger, an authority on court reform, and Miss Fahnestock founded RJC in 1982 to focus on the court problems of rural America. `Nobody holds the system accountable'
The Geiger-Fahnestock team so far has conducted its research in off-the-beaten-path court systems in Vermont, Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio, and Michigan.
Among their findings:
Seventy-nine percent of the 3,082 courts of general jurisdiction in the United States are in rural areas. Yet these country courtrooms have been virtually ignored by the judicial reform movement of the past two decades.
With publicly funded legal services to the poor drastically reduced in recent years, rural areas have been hardest hit -- with the result being ever greater injustice for non-urban residents.
In many places, lack of funds, lack of expertise, inadequate knowledge about proper procedures, and even unfamiliarity with constitutional mandates have often resulted in an uneven, unequal, unresponsive judicial process.
Mr. Geiger says that the ``isolation of rural judges and court clerks also tends to undermine the system.'' He also says that ``nobody holds the system accountable from the outside.''
``Justice is administered by those who grew up in the community,'' says Miss Fahnestock. ``And what they want to do is preserve the peace and traditional community values.''
RJC -- which operates on a $250,000 annual budget from state contracts and private foundation grants -- offers counsel to court personnel and community groups seeking to upgrade their court processes. Areas of concern range from how legal documents are filed, to how bail and pretrial detention for defendants are determined, to how prosecutors sometimes overstep their authority.
Geiger and Fahnestock stress that they are not probing public corruption. They say their criticism of rural court procedures is meant to be ``loving'' and constructive. Admittedly, their assessments are candid, and sometimes harsh.
An RJC study in a North Carolina county reported, among other things, that the court tended to rubber stamp police and prosecutorial decisions; citizens were arrested capriciously; unduly high bail was set; and defendants were often pressured into pleading guilty. Laying groundwork for reform