YAKIMA, Wash. — When a study highly critical of Yakima County’s law and justice system known as the Hutton Report was released in 2012, two members of the local League of Women Voters decided that something needed to be done.
The report showed a court system clogged with a backlog of criminal cases, a relatively low conviction rate and the detention of many suspects in serious cases in jail for a year, sometimes two, awaiting trial.
Concerned about the report, Ruth Coffin Schroeder and Joyce Dennison brought the matter to League members, who agreed to examine the county’s law and justice system and explain to the public just how it operates.
“Joyce and I were particularly interested in this because way back in 1971 we did a study on the (county’s) juvenile justice system,” said Schroeder.
To that end, the group has organized four separate forums to give the public a glimpse into Yakima County’s criminal justice system. The first forum will be at 7 p.m. Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 225 N. Second St., Yakima.
Speakers include Yakima County Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf, Yakima County Court Administrator Harold Delia and Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey, also the chairman of the county’s Law and Justice Committee. Dates for the three other forums have yet to be determined, but they will be at the same place.
Topics will cover a prerelease program the county is embarking on that will let low-level offenders out of jail while they await trial, an anti-gang initiative and specialty courts, such as drug court and mental health court.
“What we’re envisioning here is something that will help adults understand what happens when someone is arrested and is facing the justice system,” Schroeder said. “It’s easy to say ‘Lock ’em up.’ And we lock people up for the wrong reasons, for alcohol, drugs, mental illness — and it costs to lock them up.”
Delia said he first saw the two women at the county’s monthly law and justice committee meetings and wondered who they were. Now, he’s helping them inform the public about criminal justice in the county.
“I think it’s an incredible undertaking and I really compliment them on what they’re doing,” he said. “This is really a huge undertaking, but they’re pretty ambitious.”
The League of Women Voters is a national nonpartisan group that was established in the 1920s with state and local chapters. The group not only publishes pamphlets listing elected officials, but also methodically studies issues that impact the public. There are roughly 2,500 members statewide and about 50 members in the Yakima chapter.
Members pay annual $60 dues and hold fundraisers. And when an issue of importance arises, the group goes into action.
One of the League’s mostly treasured achievements was its effort to help pass the law that led to the formation of the state Public Disclosure Commission, which regulates campaign finance and legislative lobbying.
“That was one of our biggest triumphs,” Schroeder quipped.
Schroeder and Dennison worked together on the study of the county’s juvenile justice system decades ago, when juvenile incarcerations were on the rise.
“Those years were hard years for parents of teenagers,” Schroeder said.
“There was a lot of experimental drug use and there was a lot of harassment of youth.”
The pair interviewed the heads of agencies that involved youth, such as the probation department, the prosecutor’s office, school counselors and even what was then called the welfare office.
What they found was scant communication among professionals about the teens they were overseeing and serving.
“Kids were being shuffled from one agency to another without much continuity,” Schroeder said. “We just found that the services were not coordinated.”
So the group held a retreat to get the various agencies together to begin discussions.
About five years ago, the group produced a report about services for low-income children after seeing many without health insurance.
Schroeder joined the group in 1956, about two years after a woman in a neighboring hospital bed told her about the organization. She had just had her first child.
Dennison’s membership reaches back to 1968, when she joined while living in St. Charles, Ill., where there was considerable unrest after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She served on a committee there seeking a fair housing measure in the city.
Not long afterward, she moved to Yakima.
Schroeder said the group is an excellent place for women to get involved in civic issues and “be shakers.”
“At that time, there were a lot of women with small children and there wasn’t a lot of places that served as an outlet for them, like-minded women,” she said. “So it was an attractive place to be.”
Schroeder has served as president of both the local and state chapters of the group and was on an advisory committee for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
She even served eight years on the state Judicial Conduct Commission, which reviews complaints leveled against judges.
“And sometimes people complain about nothing, and sometimes they’re pretty serious,” she said. “We’ve done everything from dropping complaints to making a judge retire.”