Judge: Juvenile dependency cases job’s most troubling aspect

District Judge Jeff White (center) is joined by new Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors, from left, Lavarrian Boykin, Lauren Metzler, Jackson Breckenridge and Keyaira Wilson.

Escambia County District Judge Jeff White didn’t let a lapse in electrical service stop his June 15 presentation to a group of more than two dozen local business people on the highs, lows, whys and wherefores of his elected office. But it was obvious that one aspect of the dim environment caused him a degree of anxiety.

“Is the coffee ready yet?” White would jokingly ask on occasion during his appearance as the featured speaker for the Atmore Area Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast with an Elected Official series.

The talk itself was serious at times, informative throughout, as the district judge explained that his position as primary ruler on issues involving juveniles is at the top of his list of judicial responsibilities.

“My primary responsibilities are juvenile court, including juvenile dependency,” he said, explaining that juvenile dependency involves “children who don’t have a parent or guardian that can properly take care of them.”

White told his audience that the ever-increasing volume of such cases is one of the most surprising aspects of his job, and the aspect that causes him the most concern.

“That docket is very, very big,” he said. “It is concerning, troubling that we have so many kids in our county that don’t have the proper care. That’s the most demanding part of my job and takes up probably more time than any other part.”

He noted later that the most rewarding part of his job also comes from the rare times those cases have a positive outcome.

“I would say that the most rewarding part of my job comes when you have children taken away from their parents or guardians, the parents do what they’re supposed to do, and I return the children to them,” he explained. “That doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does … it’s really rewarding.”

White also adjudicates small claims cases, as well as those involving misdemeanor crimes and traffic violations. He pointed out that those items are also on the increase.

“The hardest thing about the civil cases is getting people to be civil toward each other because they’ve watched Judge Judy or some other judge on TV,” he said with a smile. “Then we have the misdemeanor and traffic dockets, anything from harassment to aggravated speeding to assault, third. We have dockets in Atmore and Brewton, and sometimes those dockets will run to 600 or 700 cases.”

The judge, who worked as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office prior to his appointment to the district court bench and as a defense attorney before that, also explained that plea bargains have become a necessary part of the judicial system.

“If we didn’t do that, the system would collapse,” he said. “There would never be enough time, enough judges or enough money, so plea bargaining is a necessary part of the system.”

Setting bonds is another duty for which the district judge is responsible. White explained that he has a 14-point schedule that he uses when setting bonds, a list that includes the nature of the offense, how serious the offense is, the defendant’s attachment to the local community and the state, the defendant’s prior criminal record and other factors.

“There are two primary things that I consider: Is the defendant going to flee the jurisdiction of the court, and the potential danger to the public if the defendant makes bond,” he said. “I am constantly reviewing my internal process, how I set bonds, what I consider. I am sure that I will continue to evolve the more experience I get, the more I consider those issues.”

He also noted that he is aware of the criticism that is sometimes thrown his way on social media, as far as the bond he sets for an individual.

“I read the comments, and sometimes I feel bad after reading them,” he admitted. “But I can’t be concerned about that. As a judge, you have to use your experience, use the guidelines and set something that you think is appropriate.”

He briefly discussed the various anti-drug and anti-domestic violence programs that are being implemented by the county’s courts, as well as overcrowding of the county jail.

“Is (overcrowding) a concern? Yes. Do I have a solution? I do not,” he replied to a question about crowded conditions at the Escambia County Detention Center.

“It does come into my consideration on bonds, but I obviously can’t let that be a deciding factor.”

He also touched on funding for the judicial system. He said he had no way to control it, so he would live with it.

“The way I look at funding, we all have to sacrifice,” he said. “I trust the legislators to do what’s right. If I have to take a pay cut, so be it. That would be my part of contributing to solving the problem. Do we need more money? Yes. Do we need more resources? Yes. But if we have to, we’ll make do with what we have.”