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Judge, challenger debate court budgets, scheduling, sentencing, a bit of politics

Eighth Judicial District Judge Kathryn N. Smith, right, makes a point Tuesday during a debate with challenger, Renville Assistant County Attorney Glen Jacobsen. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Eighth Judicial District Judge Kathryn N. Smith and her challenger, Renville Assistant County Attorney Glen Jacobsen, faced off in the second half of Tuesday evening's debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Smith was appointed to the bench in 1997 and was re-elected in 1998 and 2004.

She is chambered in Kandiyohi County but also hears cases in Meeker County.

Jacobsen has been the assistant county attorney in Renville County since 2002.

He was the chief deputy county attorney in Mower County from 1997 to 2001.

Jacobsen wants to change how cases are scheduled before the district court.

Allowing each hearing its own 30-minute time slot leaves excessive downtime for judges and attorneys between hearings, he said.

He proposes to do block scheduling, having all those appearing before the court that day arrive at the beginning of the day, with an earlier start time and hearings continuing through the day. "The downtime is excessive," he said. "A block schedule would avoid downtime and add efficiency."

Smith countered that Kandiyohi County has up to five judges working at one time, often with the same set of prosecutors and public defenders. Those attorneys would be better served by having a specific time for hearings, which are not automatically set for 30 minutes, but rather for the amount of time that is likely needed, she said.

The local judges developed a strategic plan in 2005, Smith said, that has helped reduce staffing costs by 30 percent by sharing district administration with the Seventh District and reducing administrative staffing. Those actions have been cited by state judicial officials, she said.

Both candidates noted that stayed sentences, as opposed to defendants sent to prison, are set by the state commission on sentencing guidelines. Those convicted of property crimes are sentenced to time in the local jail and probation, Smith noted, with people convicted of "person" crimes more likely to face prison time. The sentencing guidelines include sanctions for each possible crime and take into consideration a criminal history score, based on the person's previous convictions.

"I don't depart (from the guideline sentence) without significant reason," Smith said.

Jacobsen noted that an often unused or delayed sentencing penalty is local jail time. The court can send someone to jail for 90 days on a misdemeanor or up to one year on a gross misdemeanor. People often ask not to be sent to jail because of their job, or because of holidays or until harvest is complete.

"Jail is not something meant to be convenient," he said. "It's meant to be punishment."

Recommending changes to the sentencing guidelines isn't within the purview of a district judge, Jacobsen said. Rather, changes would need to come from the state legislature.

Both the judge and the challenger concurred that political parties shouldn't endorse judges.

"There is no place for politics in these races," Smith said, adding that a judge makes his or her decisions based on law, not political leaning.

Jacobsen acknowledged that he was asked by the state Republican Party to seek their endorsement, but choose not to pursue it. He supports the open election system for judgeships, where judges serve six-year terms and stand for election. There have been proposals in the state to have a retention system, where voters are asked if a judge should be retained in their position.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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