Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech and her opponent in the upcoming election, R.J. Nelsen, differ on a few things, not the least of which being who should have Orzech’s job. High on this list is the treatment of the 3-5 percent of criminal defendants who are repeat offenders, people who Orzech jokingly refers to as her “frequent flyers.”
Orzech, who has been one of Missoula County’s justices of the peace for the last four years, believes that by getting at the root cause of a repeat offender’s crimes, she can solve the problem and keep that person out of jail. Nelsen, on the other hand, doesn’t see keeping criminals out of jail as the job of a justice of the peace. Historically, Orzech says, the criminal courts’ policies tend to lean more toward Nelsen’s opinion than hers, what she calls the “nail ‘em, rail ‘em and jail ‘em” method of justice. These courts don’t take into consideration the fact that 95 percent of people in jail have an addiction problem, she says, and that most repeat offenders have problems finding jobs, a mental disability, or both.
Since Orzech tends to deal with misdemeanor crimes, typically drunk driving or minors in possession of alcohol, she sees her job as an opportunity to nip criminal behavior in the bud and prevent people from becoming career criminals.
“When defendants spend a long time in jail they come out worse than when they came in,” she says. “Our felony offenders don’t crawl out from underneath rocks, they worked their way up the ladder.” To try and combat the problem of repeat offenders, Orzech has put together Community Circles, a voluntary program that repeat offenders may join, with her approval, only after they’ve received sentencing and have begun to work off their restitution. In Community Circles, everyone touched by a given crime is involved in the restitution process, from the victim to the parole officer, with the purpose of using this “circle” to get to the underlying reasons for the crime.
These circles have a number of benefits, Orzech says. Typically, a criminal defendant will try and play one person working on his rehabilitation off another, telling the parole officer one story, the substance abuse counselor another, and the community service counselor yet another. When all of these people are in the same room, Orzech says, this becomes impossible.
Orzech gives the example of an 18-year-old with a history of drinking and driving around his neighborhood destroying mailboxes. After being sentenced to a minor in possession of alcohol charge and the destruction of private property, Orzech might ask the youth if he wants to be enrolled in Community Circles.
In this example, the youth’s parents, the people whose mailboxes he destroyed, his parole officer, a substance abuse counselor and his community service counselor would all be involved. By involving the crime’s victims, Orzech says, the youth can see the full impact of his actions. By involving the parents, the circle can find out if the youth’s family has a history of alcoholism. By involving the various counselors and officers assigned to a given case, the circle can institute restitution and education that has actual meaning to a given case, and isn’t just a bureaucratic exercise, Orzech says.
While restorative justice, the broader term for programs like Community Circles, has proven effective in Texas, Florida and Minnesota, not everyone believes it is the best way to handle repeat offenders.
R.J. Nelsen is the Community Service Coordinator for Missoula County, which means he is in charge of every criminal defendant who has been sentenced to community service. Whereas Orzech was a microbiological and agricultural scientist for more than a dozen years, Nelsen’s background is in law enforcement. His bachelor’s degree is in criminal justice, and he spent five years as a sheriff’s deputy before he took over his current job.
Nelsen is against Community Circles because the caseload of a justice of the peace makes the program unrealistic, he says. A justice of the peace in Missoula County deals with 8,000 to 9,000 cases each year, and of those, almost half are criminal in nature. “Let’s be pragmatic,” he says. “We deal with a high volume of people through Justice Court and we have a limited number of resources in this budget.”
Moreover, Nelsen doesn’t think that sit-down meetings with the involved parties are very effective. This is because he doesn’t believe the defendant’s parents or the victim can be objective when they talk about a crime. Using the example of a kid in the habit of destroying mailboxes, a neighbor might hate the youth in question, and do everything in her power to make the child look like public enemy number one. On the flip side, the parents are likely to support their child, even though he might deserve his punishment. Regardless, involving people who aren’t professionals, Nelsen says, brings a dangerous subjectivity to the situation.
“You can’t rely on the information that these people give you because of the inherent conflict in their relationships,” he says. Nelson is also concerned that Orzech isn’t always fair and impartial. He notes how Orzech is touting herself as “Judge KO” on her campaign fliers. By stating in advance that she will “knock out,” crime, Orzech is compromising the office she’s supposed to hold impartially, Nelsen says.
Another area of concern for Nelsen is how Orzech sets bail. Orzech will readily admit that, in cases alleging a violent crime, she sets bail as high as she can and forbids contact between the involved parties. Nelsen points out that the purpose of bail is not to regulate behavior, but only to ensure that a defendant will show up to their trial. Using bail for any other purpose is not within the power of a justice of the peace, he says, and to do so is not a responsible action.
“If Karen Orzech was doing a great job, I wouldn’t be running,” he says.
Beyond her involvement in Community Circles, Orzech chairs the Magistrates Association, is a member of the Kiwanis Club, is the training judge for western Montana and sits on a state board that deals with technology in justice. While some might commend Orzech for her community involvement, Nelsen cites that last year she used 35 hours more sub-judge time than her counterpart, Justice John Odlin. This means that while Orzech was away from the bench, the state hired a temporary judge to take her place. Nelsen says that the committees and auxiliary organizations that she is member of are distracting Orzech from her primary responsibility. “Missoula County is not in a position to have a justice of the peace on those committees,” he says.
Orzech believes that her varied background is part of what makes her a good judge. In addition to working with the World Health Organization on mosquito control and researching ways to develop disease resistant alfalfa, Orzech has worked as a volunteer with Victims of Violent Crime, the YWCA and Big Brothers and Sisters. While Community Circles has only officially existed since January, Orzech has been involved in restorative justice for more than 20 years; she just didn’t have a name for it, she says. Orzech says that her involvement with these organizations has given her the compassion necessary to do her job. But by the same token, she says that this compassion hasn’t made her soft.
“I am law and order,” she says. “I do hold people’s feet to the fire, but there is a way to do that that doesn’t make people a part of the system.”
Whether impassioned or compassionate, Nelsen doesn’t see Orzech’s emotions as a valid part of her job. JPs should not get emotionally involved with a case, he says: “Emotion should play no part in the job of justice of the peace.”
Orzech is the only judge in Montana who is currently implementing restorative justice.
“The legal system is an adversarial system that pits the state against the defendant, when really, the crime is against the community,” she says. “This is a way for the defendants to get back into the community.”
In addition, the Community Circles program will ultimately save the county money, Orzech says. It costs $50 a day to keep a person in jail. That adds up to $18,250 a year. “The real success of this program will be measured in four or five years when the jails start emptying out,” Orzech says.
Perhaps most importantly, Orzech has a personal tie that has made her a believer in restorative justice. When her stepdaughter was 16 years old, Orzech says, she was very angry, and went through a lot of trouble with the law. Eventually, Orzech and her husband had to enroll their daughter in a special school that used the principles of restorative justice to help solve its students’ problems. Orzech’s stepdaughter is now 19 years old, attending community college in Oregon, and studying criminal justice.
“Being a parent who has gone through something like this has made me a better judge,” she says.