EDITORIAL: DA opens window on justice system

READERS LIKE OUR POLICE BLOTTER PAGE. We know because they tell us so and research by the newspaper industry back in the days when newspapers could afford to do research confirms it. Today all we have to do is check the traffic on our website. After the homepage, the reports of who got arrested on what charges are the most popular destination.

The drama that accompanies confrontations and violence is one reason for the blotter’s popularity. Look at commercial TV. Critics deride local stations for boosting their ratings by emphasizing crime news: If it bleeds, it leads, so they claim. But viewers like to watch TV news, which means critics are blaming the messenger for giving the audience what it wants. And why shouldn’t we be curious about the bad actors who lurk in our neighborhood or the unfortunate events nearby?

True, bad news makes some people feel good just knowing others are worse off. But despite the popularity of news stories on mishaps, misbehavior and mayhem, a commitment to this type of reporting has pitfalls that can harm innocent people and lull the readers and viewers into thinking we’ve informed them when they’ve only heard half the story. Now that could change as the result of a new project introduced this month by county District Attorney Paul Czajka.

Local and state police agencies provide the accounts of arrests and summonses published on the blotter page. We report in detail on a few major crime stories, but the weekly list of charges and incidents reflects what we consider the most serious of the alleged crimes or violations provided to us by the police. We use the word “alleged” repeatedly because Americans learn from an early age that our judicial system is supposed to consider a person charged with a crime innocent unless the defendant pleads guilty or guilt is proved at trial.

Newspapers don’t operate under the same rules that apply to law enforcement and the courts. Most of the time, the crime makes news; the determination of guilt or innocence does not. That’s not fair to innocent people or to our readers. The police have no obligation to issue bulletins on a crime once the alleged perpetrator is on trial. And without an easy way to monitor the disposition of cases, we devote our limited news space to allegations of new crimes instead of following up on old ones.

But this month the district attorney released a spreadsheet listing the disposition of all felony cases tried in 2012 by his office. The data include the names of the defendants, whether they pled guilty, or were convicted or acquitted, and other pertinent facts, including the date of their arrest, the police agencies that charged them and a numerical reference to the crimes with which they were charged. In addition, Mr. Czajka has begun issuing weekly reports on the disposition of cases.

The DA has pledged to put this information online available to the public. As taxpayers, we fund the criminal justice system. We have a right to know more about how it functions. This list takes an important step in that direction.

The consolidation of felony dispositions in a publicly accessible document makes it more defensible for news organizations like ours to continue publishing police records because for felonies the plea or court decision joins the arrest as part of the public record we create. This may not intrigue readers who prefer accounts of antisocial behavior, but it’s a step toward greater fairness in how we report the news.

There’s more to do before the public has a true 21st century window through which citizens can look in on the actions of the justice system in Columbia County. The DA provided a clear example of the remaining challenge in a second spreadsheet, which reports the disposition of the cases in town, village and city courts, hundreds of cases all of which are missing the name of the person charged. Mr. Czajka said he did not know which of the local court cases might involved sealed records, as is often required for matters referred to Family Court.

A comprehensive, consistent presentation of the disposition of county and local court cases is long overdue. It will cost money to create and maintain, but it will be money well spent. District Attorney Czajka deserves credit for taking the first step. It is now time for the Board of Supervisors to fund this project in the interests of justice.

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