Waterford, MI (PT) – Judges have an important and difficult job. A top priority for any judge should be to keep the community safe and functioning. But what a lot of judges seem to forget is that offenders are still members of the community. A reactive judge with a habit of serving jail sentences for nonviolent offenders or minor violations can hurt the community more than they think it helps: jails become overcrowded and resources dwindle, addicts get jail time instead of treatment, citizens end up losing their job over jail time for minor probation violations. None of these things do the offender or community any good in the long run. At the same time, a judge must make sure an offender receives proper consequences if they are in fact a danger to the community at large.
So with an opening for the Waterford 51st District Judge position, I decided to sit down with candidate Mary Mara to see if she could bring some positive change to the Waterford community if she is elected judge in November.
Your opponent seems to be running a “tough on crime” platform. Which is worrisome because giving jail time to people with low-level drug offenses, for example, ends up hurting the community in the long run.
It doesn’t work. Most of the cases coming through our Waterford court system are criminal cases. Obviously no one goes to court for a good reason unless it’s something like an adoption. A lot of the people brought before Waterford court have problems with addiction so I think it’s important we treat addiction as a disease– because it is. Throwing people in jail doesn’t help their case or the community. Sure, we will have cases where someone is a repeat offender and does not want the help we are offering, and for them jail time might be appropriate. But we need to work with the resources we have to help people with an addiction as best we can. As long as the crime is non-violent, jail time should be avoided as much as possible.
The position you are running to fill was previously held by Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski. A big part of her job was overseeing offenders going through sobriety court. She was known for frequently giving jail time to probationers for minor violations– such as missing a drug test or PBT– despite holding jobs, showing up to court, and passing previous drug tests. Would you continue this kind of method?
Not at all. Our jail is already overcrowded. Sure there are cases where a probationer may continue to put lives in danger by driving drunk while on probation, and these types of cases should be dealt with appropriately. However, if someone simply misses a test but are otherwise making a valid effort to better themselves, it doesn’t make sense to throw them in jail for a week and reverse all the progress they’ve made. Having family members who have struggled with addiction, I know it’s important to treat it as a disease. Jail time does not work for this unless all options have been exhausted or other people’s lives are in danger.
So what types of programs do you think help addicts or offenders the most and how can we implement them into the Waterford court system?
Things like Veterans Treatment Court are very important and seem to have a genuine long-lasting positive impact. A staggering number of veterans end up in the court system for alcohol or drug charges. This treatment court integrates mental health care and mentors. These mentors are other veterans or sometimes even active duty personnel. The purpose is to achieve sobriety, recovery and stability. The program helps veterans deal with mental health issues like depression or PTSD, while the mentors provide a relatable support system. I would love to see this type of mental health approach applied to the other courts. Unfortunately the resources aren’t always available. Veterans Treatment Court works so well because there are a lot of volunteers working as mentors. In order for people to stop committing crimes, things like mental health or financial stability must be addressed. We can’t change anyone’s behavior, but we can help by providing them with resources or support that they may not have known existed.
What kind of experience do you have that makes you qualified to be a fair district court judge?
For 11 years I worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Oakland County. I’ve been through thousands of court hearings. I’ve pretty much seen and heard it all at this point. My area of focus for a while was prosecution of child abuse cases. Which was emotionally overwhelming. Dealing with those kind of cases every day skewed my perception of reality a bit, it makes you kind of give up hope. For the past 14 years I’ve been a litigator for the Oakland County Corporation Counsel. My work there mostly involved defending Oakland County Sheriff Deputies against claims of civil rights violations. As a result, I am very educated on constitutional rights, which I take very seriously.
It might worry some voters that you’ve spent so much time defending sheriff deputies against civil rights claims. What do you think about the stories of police killings and current state of our police force?
It really worries me. The deaths are tragic, no doubt about it. What worries me is that our current situation will discourage good and ethical people from joining the police force– which is what we need most. Sure there are bad apples, I won’t deny that. But having worked in this field for so long, I know there are a lot of genuinely good officers too. Our police have an important job to protect and serve our community so we need the best and the brightest applying for the job. With such negative stigma, I’m genuinely worried about what kind of applicants and police force we will see in the future.
An estimated 20% of residents voted in the Oakland County primaries in August. Mary Mara and Todd Fox nearly tied at 34.64% and 34.93% respectively. Whoever wins on November 8th will be deciding the fate of Waterford residents until at least 2019.