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Editorial: Don’t just sit back and complain

Scott Youngmark (Photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office)

It would be easy to criticize Polk County Judge Jeffrey Anderson for setting a low bail amount for Scott Youngmark less than two weeks before Youngmark allegedly murdered his fiancée, Kari Roberts, on Dec. 1.

But post-crime criticism avails nothing if it stops at finding fault. What the case should do is motivate would-be critics to seek to prevent such miscalculations.

Across the border, in Hennepin County, Minn., the critics don’t stand back and just complain; they show up in court.

WATCH, a nonprofit group of Minneapolis residents, was founded 20 years ago as a result of indignation over the release of sexual-assault offenders back into the community. Starting with a small group of women, WATCH has been present at court hearings dealing with violence against women and children, tracking how the system handles offenders.

The group now numbers more than 100 volunteers sitting in court hearings five days a week. WATCH screens and trains the volunteers who, armed with trademark red clipboards, collect data, summarize their observations and offer what they call objective feedback to the Hennepin County judiciary.

Not all of the county’s judges are fans, acknowledged Donna McNamara, WATCH’s development and communications director. But most have signed up to receive the group’s quarterly newsletter, she said, because WATCH’s volunteers have an established history in the county’s courts.

“They don’t like everything we say,” McNamara said, “but we hear judges say they don’t get a lot of feedback otherwise.”

Through careful observation, she said, WATCH members recommend court-system improvements, some of which effect real change, such as when the court agreed to designate a probation officer specific to felony domestic violence offenders.

“We pitch in to help make things happen,” McNamara said, “to be part of that change.”

That was not the case in Milwaukee, when in 2008, Alderman Bob Donovan tried to put together a similar court-monitoring group. The effort stalled quickly, Donovan said, when residents expressed little interest in spending the necessary time in court.

So for those angry at Anderson’s decision in the Youngmark case, it’s time to act. There are going to be flaws in any court system, of course, but there is a way people can help spot those flaws, and it’s working in Minnesota.

Volunteer court monitoring could happen here if critics get off their soapboxes and into the courtroom.

If Kari Roberts’ death spurs court monitoring, she will be remembered for more than being just another victim.

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