Scott Teter seeks Judge Deats’ seat
By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
CASSOPOLIS – In seeking Fourth District Judge, former Cass County prosecutor Scott L. Teter recognizes the need to sort out people who do stupid things from those who are mean and dangerous.
While both violate the law, "The sentencing may need to be quite different. One size doesn't fit all," Teter said Monday at Cass District Library, where he announced his bid to succeed Judge Paul Deats.
"I really believe it's a matter of separating people you're afraid of from people you're mad at," said the 15-year prosecutor, who spent five years in private practice, including with French and Lawrence. "I've been on the other side. I started on the other side, and I believe civil experience is important."
"One group last night may have overcelebrated for the Super Bowl, got drunk, then jumped in the car and drove home," said Teter, 45, of Edwardsburg. "You can deal with that type of an offender in a particular way," blending financial sanctions and perhaps incarceration until they "sting" by the "consequences" administered.
But a second group, "We're not dealing with effectively," he said. "Chronic drunk drivers, chronic offenders, over and over, it's not bad judgment, it's people who are self-medicating to cope with undiagnosed mental illness. They're manic or depressed. You can take their license. They'll drive anyway. You can take their car. They'll get another one. If we don't intervene on their problem, they'll deal with exactly the same issue when they get out of jail. You have to be able to take them case by case and go, 'What's the right thing to do?' I did that a lot as prosecutor, although you usually heard about the cases where I put the hammer to somebody, which I will do. There are times that's completely appropriate, and I don't apologize for that a bit. There are people who need punishment. But other times I sat down with the defendant and the defense attorney to talk to them and find out who this person is. As a judge, I believe that's exactly what that job entails."
"We have an outstanding Probate Judge (Susan Dobrich of Dowagiac), who I would argue is one of the best in the state. On the other end, with Judge (Michael) Dodge, you have to have committed some fairly serious crime" punishable by more than a year in jail. "There's a great public safety issue in getting those people off the street."
"In between, in District Court, you're kind of a bridge," Teter said. "At 17, the law considers you an adult. I thought I was an adult at 17, but I've now checked with my parents, and they didn't think so.
"That group from 17 to 21, we're not handling really well. We need community service to be an automatic part of those sentences. Young offenders need to put time back into the community for the resources they took out.
"In addition, there need to be job skills retraining and education required. If they're not working, they're just waiting for another opportunity to break the law. I'm already working with some folks who are looking at a program for when people get released from jail. Since statistically most of them are young males, we need to develop a mentoring program. That's how you start to turn the community. Otherwise, it's a revolving door. We don't have the resources to do that anymore. Prisons have locked more people out. They've jacked up the sentencing guidelines. The governor, in her enthusiasm for reducing the state budget, decided to overcrowd every jail in the state."
Sentencing guidelines "do not apply to misdemeanors," Teter noted. "There's a lot of leverage, if we use it to move a significant percentage of that population in a different direction. But it means we've to be creative and do it together. Our people are unique. This is our home. A lot of us could have gone someplace else. You work the hardest to protect your home. Our people in the system have the experience level and the commitment to make things happen and to try something different without a ton of resources. When you look at everything we've been able to do here it's because people care."
Judge Deats owed
'a debt of gratitude'
"I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Judge (Paul) Deats for his years of service," Teter said. "I've been informed he will be retiring at the end of this year. This community owes him a debt of gratitude. He's put in over 20 years on the bench."
Teter's roots grow deep in Cass County. Even five years on Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox's staff did not change that. Instead of sacrificing the ties of family and faith that bind him so closely to this area, he continued to live in Edwardsburg and commuted to Lansing.
The Attorney General's office tapped him in 2003 to take charge of the state's Child Support Division as a result of the reputation he earned as prosecutor beginning in 1996 for relentlessly prosecuting child molesters, abusers and deadbeat dads.
"It was the only program of its kind in the United States," Teter said. "Not the child support due last week, but chronic non-payers who abandoned their children and left their care to taxpayers. In four years down here, I prosecuted 250 cases and we collected $1 million from Cass County for those children."
"Last time I checked – this would be last year's numbers," Teter said, "District Court had $4.7 million in outstanding fines, court costs and restitution. If I know anything in the legal field, I know how to collect money. Going after money that's already owed to victims is one of the first orders of business."
in Cass County
"Cass County is and has been my home," he said. "Until my grandparents passed away, four generations of my family lived here. It was an excellent place to grow up and I wanted to raise my children here also. My wife and I are very involved in our church, as well, and did not want to leave it. That's why I made the difficult decision to drive back and forth."
Scott and Susan married in 1987, shortly after his graduation from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. They were joined by daughter, Ashli, 16.
They also have two sons, Austin, 15; and Zachary, 13, who attend the same high school he attended before enrolling in Kalamazoo College.
Teter is the son of former county commissioner Jack and Marian Teter of Edwardsburg. His siblings, save one, continue to live in the area. His brothers are Jim and Jay; his sisters, Tonya Teter-Hans, Tammy Boyer and Misty Krueger. The youngest, Jay, a country and contemporary Christian singer and master of ceremonies for Dixie Stampede, lives in Tennessee.
"Other than my relationship with God, my family is the most important part of my life," Teter said. "I love spending time with my children. My wife is my best friend. Also, my family is very close. My relationship with my parents and siblings is an integral part of who I am.
"I talk several times a week with my brothers and sisters and my parents. Jay is the only one who moved from the area, but we still visit him in Tennessee and he comes here several times a year. I am very blessed to have these friendships with my family members. We make it a priority to stay close and to support one another, and we are stressing the same priorities wth our children."
for pursuing judgship
Teter said he believes in taking a "proactive stance" of education and crime prevention in assuring safe homes, safe schools and safe streets – his opinion underscored by the current climate of shrinking resources.
"I believe a judge must be fair, impartial and must maintain the highest level of integrity," Teter said. "So much of the public confidence in the system is dependent on the conduct of the judge. If the judge is moody, discourteous or unprofessional, it can undermine confidence in the system and decisions rendered by the court.
"Further, the judge must insure the system works for the litigants," he said. "In criminal cases, the people are represented by the prosecutor. Both the defendant and the people deserve a fair trial. If found guilty, the defendant is subject to the court's authority and the sentence must facilitate justice. The goal of the sentence is to enforce the law and protect the public. That is the purpose of government.
"In a civil case, the litigants should have a fair opportunity to present their issues before the court and should be able to rely on an impartial, independent resolution of the issues.
"To accommodate justice, you have to listen," Teter said. "You must craft a sentence that holds the defendant accountable and promotes rehabilitation, while at the same time trying to restore the victim to the place they were before the crime was committed. As judge, I would weigh sentence recommendations by counsel to try to accomplish these things. The system must move cases in an efficient and timely manner. The old saying, 'Justice delayed is justice dened,' holds true. Especially in domestic violence cases when families are split, the sooner the case is resolved, the sooner the problems can be addressed.
"Further, a judge can and should be proactive. In this position of authority, the judge has the opportunity and the obligation to educate citizens about what the law says and what is expected of them. I believe this should start with our school children. As prosecutor, each year I spoke to every high school in the county prior to prom and graduation season. I explained the law, the consequences for violating it and the risks involved in illegal behavior.
"Just waiting until the crime occurs and handling the case itself doesn't change what happened," he said. "We must work to prevent the occurrence of the offense to effect change."
"Today we face growing problems with shrinking resources," Teter said. "We are challenged to find better ways to address criminal behavior by addressing the root causes – not just dealing with the symptoms."
Safe homes, safe schools and safe streets are interconnected.
"I have spent a significant part of my career dealing with domestic violence," Teter said, "because the homes we have in our county become factories that produce children with lots and lots of problems that manifest themselves in other areas, including their behavior and performance at school."
"When I joined the Prosecutor's Office in 1992" under Margaret Chiara, who went on to become U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan in Grand Rapids, "we had done 36 cases of domestic violence that year," which grew in subsequent years to 108, 236, 284 and more than 300 "and it hasn't been below 300 since."
"We did not create more of it by prosecuting it, we stopped ignoring it and took the position that even if the victim did not want to cooperate or was not able to cooperate, we as a society had the obligation to do it anyway, and police began gathering evidence we needed to be able to present it in court and to hold people accountable," he said.
"If you have a violent home with four children, they leave and create four more families just like it," Teter said. "They all have four kids and we're up to 16, then 64, then 256. It's no mystery why we end up with a jail overcrowding problem because 80 percent of the men in prison came out of homes filled with domestic violence. It's not a coincidence, it's cause and effect.
"If a home is not a safe place to be, two things happen. One, it generates a lot of anger that at some point will come back out, whether it's at school, with their first girlfriend or in a marriage relationship. Second, many children look for ways to escape that anger. It's safer in the street. We don't have a gang problem, we have a safe homes problem. As time goes on, and they look for a way to forget," they are suspectible to drugs and alcohol.
""You will always have people willing to supply, but why is the demand so high? If we don't break the demand, we'll never break the supply. 'Just Say No' doesn't work," Teter said.
If homes can be made safer, children come out of them less dangerous to go to school.
"We've had kids take weapons to school," Teter said, "or drugs. Some just take a ton of anger. I'm in favor of education to 18 instead of 16 (as Gov. Jennifer Granhold proposes) because you can't function in society without at least a high school diploma, but if you trap someone in school who wanted to quit at 17, that makes for a difficult 17-year-old to deal with, and they don't go into Probate Court, they go into District Court. Schools have got to be the safest place in our community because everyone has a right to an education and no individuals in a school should be able to affect that."
"You get the kind of behavior you tolerate," Teter said.