Sends letter to state chief justice decrying ‘reduced stature’ of juvenile judges in Jackson County
By Damian Mann for Ashland.news
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Joe Charter has announced his sudden retirement effective May 1, while also offering a sharp critique of the “reduced stature” of the local juvenile justice system. Charter emailed a copy of his resignation letter to Ashland.news and two other area news providers shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27.
An Ashland resident, Charter served 18 years on the bench, with 16 years in the Justice Court and the past two years in juvenile court.
Charter, who was reportedly out of the country and could not be reached for comment, sent a letter to Gov. Tina Kotek last Friday announcing his decision, which came as a surprise in the local legal community.
Charter was elected in May 2020 for a six-year term and was assigned to the juvenile court as a “junior judge.”
“I was happy to accept the assignment, believing that strengthening and preserving families in crisis is among the country’s highest priorities,” he stated in a second letter sent to Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Megan Flynn on Friday.
Charter was reassigned this month by Benjamin Bloom, Jackson County Circuit Court presiding judge, to the civil domestic relations docket. Charter was replaced by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge David Hoppe. Two judges typically man the juvenile court.
Bloom said he was surprised that Charter announced his retirement.
“We’re kind of in the dark as well,” he said.
Charter, in his letter to the Supreme Court justice, described his willingness to continue to help improve the juvenile justice system in Jackson County.
“There are numerous ways in which the perception of ‘reduced stature’ for juvenile judges is practiced in Jackson County,” Charter said in his letter.
As an example, he cited the “diminished” office facilities provided to juvenile judges.
“I was left to share a judicial assistant with another juvenile judge for six months while other civil and criminal judges during the same period were able to obtain new assistants while bypassing the typical posting and interview process,” he stated.
During his time with juvenile court, Charter said he was involved in educating local judges on issues such as the criminalization of poverty and “implicit bias.”
He is a member of Reclaiming Lives/Recovery Cafe and oversaw the Recovery Opportunity Court dealing with adult treatment for the past two years.
“I have maintained an interest in potential policy solutions to homelessness and addiction and have communicated frequently with local officials regarding various such proposals,” Charter stated.
Bloom took issue with Charter’s assertions about the reduced stature of the juvenile judges.
“I completely disagree with that,” said Bloom, who has served on the juvenile court as well. “The juvenile court is the most important work we do.”
He said the situations facing a juvenile court judge are far different than many in the legal profession have faced.
“It is a definitely a different situation than lawyers are used to in the adversarial process,” he said. “It’s more of a solutions-oriented approach.”
Juvenile court judges work with social service organizations and other justice officials to help guide an offender away from becoming repeat offenders, Bloom said.
He described the juvenile judicial facilities as first rate and some of the best in the state.
Beth Heckert, Jackson County District Attorney, said the county’s juvenile justice system does a good job coordinating with her office and has handled cases effectively.
She said the building that houses Juvenile Community Justice is relatively new and appears to have sufficient office space.
Heckert said the juvenile justice environment is different than adult criminal cases.
“The whole juvenile justice system is built on the idea that the state becomes the parent,” she said.
She said the system works to provide a juvenile with the services needed for rehabilitation and to avoid becoming a repeat offender.
Joe Ferguson, deputy director of Community Justice, said the juvenile justice system is a very different environment for incoming judges than the trial courts.
“That’s why they may not want to come to juvenile,” he said. “We try to do a good job orienting them to the juvenile justice system.”
He said youths undergo a risk assessment, which includes determining the likelihood of committing other crimes down the road and making a determination about their current living situation.
“You are dealing with the whole family,” he said.
In the last quarter of 2022, according to Community Justice, 131 youths were referred to the juvenile division. They were involved in an alleged 158 criminal offenses.
Reach writer Damian Mann at email@example.com.