Thursday, June 14, 2012

Paper puts cases' starting date in court news as a nod to possible changes in offenders' behavior

The first time I ever paid $1 for a weekly newspaper, somewhere in Ohio, I asked the store clerk, "Is this paper worth a dollar?" She thought for about three seconds and replied, "Yeah, for the court news."

Seeing who's been misbehaving, and caught doing it, is one reason people buy community newspapers. But by the time a case appears in the paper, the offender's behavior may have changed. That's why the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., recently began adding the year that the case began to each listing in its court news.

"We first discussed the idea because we noticed numerous cases being postponed and a few cases that were several years old," Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton, right, told us in an email. "Then, the mother of a man who was facing drug charges called and said her son was no longer using drugs but his name kept appearing in court record and it was discouraging to him to think everyone who read it would believe he was in trouble again. Cases often get continued numerous times. Because we run the next scheduled court date, we go ahead and run the item again, saying it was continued to another court date. His case had been continued several times, which is not unusual. We decided that listing the year a charge was originally filed would give readers additional information. It was easy to provide, because case numbers include the year."

When Burton started her paper a decade ago, she immediately began publishing circuit and district court records, land transfers, marriages, divorces, building permits and health inspections. "Public record had not been published in Adair County in recent history so people quickly took notice," she says. "Some loved it, others didn't. From the beginning we've tried to educate readers why having access to government is important and we have used public record as a learning tool. We knew we could publish records, but we wanted readers to understand why we should. It allows us and our readers to look for trends and to get a glimpse at what their elected judges and prosecutors are doing. We've noticed that more people convicted of dealing drugs are being sentenced to longer times in jail since temporary judges replaced our elected circuit judge who became ill two years ago and recently died. Those are the types of things readers can look for if they are interested. We have tweaked how we publish court record over the years to make it more informative. We are always looking for ways to make our court records more informative and a reflective picture of what is taking place in the courtroom."

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