Saturday, September 24, 2011

Why not measure outcomes of the courts and the legislature?

Doesn’t it seem odd only one of the three branches of state government is expected to measure and produce positive outcomes? The Wyoming legislature has created its own bureaucracy around auditing executive branch programs “to provide the Legislature useful, objective, and timely information about the extent to which desired program results are being achieved.” But no one measures the outcomes achieved (or not) by either the courts or the legislature.
Legislators and judges will argue they are accountable to the voters. Give us all a break. The legislature has created a system permitting most of them to run for re-election unopposed with little in the way of a public record and no transparency about how they vote. They use sub-districting to gerrymander themselves into lifelong jobs. Who they represent is identified by a number, e.g. House District XX, a number that means little or nothing to constituents who often have no idea of just who it is among the 60 House members and 30 senators who is supposed to represent them.
Just as the legislature audits executive branch agencies, so should the executive branch or an independent watchdog audit the legislature.  Let’s evaluate the evaluators! Let’s have an honest look at their relationships with lobbyists, whether and how they use facts and research in decision making, and the effectiveness of a committee structure that generates a lot of expense but few results, the amount of money they spend traveling and for what purpose. What are the results of all those studies that pile up on the shelves? Why do so few want to serve that a majority of the legislators run unopposed, never having to answer to anyone for a single vote.
And the courts? Actually the public does have a regular report on the failure of the court system. It’s called the “Blotter Briefs.” Each day you read the Blotter Briefs it should occur to you this lengthy list is an indicator of the outcomes achieved by the courts. Those who read the column carefully must feel they know some of the men and women, becoming familiar with those whose names appear often. But the Blotter Briefs exposes not only those whose names appear but also the failure of the courts to stop the revolving door.
The next time you read the “Blotter Briefs” ask yourself what “crimes” they actually report. For the most part those whose names appear repeatedly have mental health and/or substance abuse related problems. The crime is not only the one with which those individuals are charged. It is also the fact that with the exception of the drug and DUI courts, most judges refuse to employ research-based practices known to reduce recidivism among those offenders.
As we vote periodically on whether a judge should be retained wouldn’t you like to know what outcomes that judge has achieved? The judiciary should be accountable to produce statistics to demonstrate how they have used their immense power. Voters should know the recidivism rate for each judge. It’s a matter of public safety when courts fail to do what can be done to halt reoffending. The electorate should know the rate at which a certain judge jails youthful offenders or places them in costly out-of-home residential treatment.  After all Wyoming has one of the highest rates in the country for shipping children out of the community and the research shows this to be wholly ineffective. It also costs taxpayers an extraordinary amount of money that should be used instead to improve community based opportunities for families.
As Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Judges and legislators may like it that way even while they hammer on executive branch agencies for “accountability.” If you think you’d like to see more effective government, perhaps it’s time to demand that light be shined on all three branches.

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