Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace has been in office one month, and already he is reaching out and trying to expand the positive influence that the court can have.
Grace has plans. Despite his claims of an increased administrative workload since taking the job, steps to improve accessibility and alternative forms of justice are already on his radar. Grace has already gone to Athens City Council to request more money from the city to create a new position that would enable the court to expand its diversion methods. The request, made at the Jan. 11 meeting, asked for $60,000-70,000 to be added to the court’s budget. It would increase the pay of court staffers and provide funding for what would be a newly created position of diversion coordinator
“A good diversion coordinator would look at each of the people that are coming in and identify which items and available resources would be most useful for each individual,” Grace said.
Diversion is a fairly simple concept. It finds alternative forms of justice to change behaviors and help people who find themselves into the courtroom to serve themselves or the community in a way that makes the likelihood of repeat offenses slimmer. As a tactic, diversion ensures that such arrests won’t show up on records and that criminal convictions are not necessary. The current diversion program is a single-issue program that is entirely focused on underage consumption of alcohol. Grace believes this program has been successful and that to foster this environment of self-help, assisted healing and rehabilitation would be best for the people in question and for the community at large. He believes simple, non-violent crimes like criminal mischief or disorderly conduct could be tackled in such a way. The costs of taking the program, paid for by its participants, would go toward paying for this new position.
“That is very helpful for the participant in the program because they do not have a record that will impact their career and job searches later on,” Grace said. “It’s also good for the community if it works because the real goal is that education.
Diversion can help, but there are still problems with the justice system. Oftentimes, people run into more problems while in the system itself. For example, some people have a hard time paying court costs because they can only be payed in the office for the municipal court in the Athens city government building, a system that limits accessibility. Grace wants to implement an online system where fees can be paid. That will be one thing to follow up on to see if the initial months of Grace’s tenure have been successful. But what types of cases does this court traditionally see?
Municipal courts in Ohio have three divisions. The first is the civil division that handles claims of $15,000 or lower, followed by the traffic/criminal division and the housing and/or environmental division. Municipal courts traditionally see misdemeanor and low-stakes cases.
Grace, 40, is already using his familiar legal background to his advantage. He studied political science as an undergrad at Ohio University and received his J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. Grace has been back in Athens since 2001 when he teamed up with Pat McGee and opened their private practice, Grace & McGee Attorneys at Law. Over that time, Grace served four years as an acting judge in the Municipal Court under Judge William Grim. Grim has now passed along his role to Grace. Grace worked as a magistrate of the juvenile court under Judge Robert Stewart for almost 13 years, and he does it all with a full family: a wife and four children.
The early stages of Todd Grace’s tenure as judge are already showing a desire to seek productive modes of justice, modes that he thinks Athens County judges have showcased for years. His time as a defense attorney and in other judicious roles has no doubt helped.
“One of the main things I want people to know is we really want to see them succeed. Our goal is not to see them fail or in any way have any difficulty with the system,” Grace said. “We’re looking for ways to have them resolve all of their issues here without having to come back.
By seeking alternative forms of justice, Todd Grace is showing that the criminal justice system is adapting in positive ways locally. Grace’s methods are already demonstrating his commitment to success. He wants the court to be accessible and easy to navigate so that the same people aren’t recycled through the system. Thus far, Grace seems to be taking the right steps.
Here are four pieces of media relevant to Grace and to municipal courts
- The Ohio State Bar Association has this page on its website that gives some basic information to know about municipal courts.
- Grace spoke before Athens City Council to request the funds for staff pay raises and the diversion program/coordinator position.
- This other piece from the OSBA is an explainer on Ohio’s courts.
- This publication of the Center for Health and Justice attempted to find how effective criminal justice diversion programs and diversion programs work.