Anna Ferguson, Superior Court Judge Nevada County

Anna Ferguson: Superior Court Judge Nevada County

Q: Up to 5 million older Americans are abused every year, and the annual loss by victims of financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.6 billion. Elder abuse is a silent problem that robs seniors of their dignity, security and in some cases, costs them their lives. What would you recommend to combat elder abuse?

AF: As the Assistant District Attorney, I have spent the past 8 years engaging in frequent community outreach to fight physical and financial elder abuse. Nevada County has the highest number of residents aged 65 and older of any county in California. I recognize the potential for isolation, dependency and reluctance to report that makes these crimes difficult to prosecute. For this reason, I regularly speak to the public as well as targeted agencies like APS, IHSS, senior citizen groups, and victims rights organizations. I also write columns for the local paper, as well as speak on the radio to promote public awareness and encourage reporting.

I fight in court for higher bail on these cases. I have successfully prosecuted numerous state court actions to hold both physical and financial elder abusers accountable. Many of these have garnered media attention including notably the murder of an elder female for her prescription pain medication a few years ago, where the jury returned a 1st degree murder conviction, even though the police initially thought it was a suicide. I also secured a lengthy prison term against the defendant who attacked an elder couple in their Lake Wildwood home, striking the male victim with a tire iron. Most recently I was able to get the court to reluctantly agree to send four 18 year olds to prison following the home robbery of an elder male victim. The sentencing judges all expressed concern for the defendants‘ youth, but little for the victim. As a judge, I will be vigilant to protect not just the rights of defendants, but also victims, witnesses and the public by meting out appropriate sentences according to the Rules of Court.

I am endorsed for candidacy by Crime Victims United, Sheriff Keith Royal, the Sheriffs Management Association, District Attorney Cliff Newell and numerous other citizens who care about the safety of this community.

 

Q: People with intellectual disabilities only make up 1% of the general population, but 4% of those in jail. How do you explain the fact that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to get in trouble with the law, and what challenges can they confront in the legal system in general?

AF: Unfortunately, disabled citizens can be the target of sophisticated criminals. They can be easier to manipulate into acting unwittingly as accomplices, especially in drug transportation cases. Sophisticated criminals know how to exploit vulnerable groups like the disabled which is why the number of disabled people in court may be proportionally higher than their numbers in the general population.

In the DA’s Office, we receive training from a number of agencies including APS, mental health court, Health & Human Resources, DVSAC and Alta Regional Services on how to spot this type of situation and what resources are available. We advocate for the court to channel the disabled to appropriate services and to tailor terms of probation to prevent further exploitation of these defendants. We are often able to dismiss charges following the successful completion of a program or probationary term to restore the defendant’s record as well. Obviously, incarceration presents a huge obstacle for this group, as the local jail cannot well accommodate special needs and they are at risk for further exploitation there. Thus, we also advocate for use of ankle monitor or house arrest as appropriate.

If elected, I will remain vigilant to insure the rights of the disabled are protected and to prevent exploitation and under influence being used against this group of individuals. I will also continue to look for additional services and make information available to all parties to insure that all options are known and utilized to greatest effect.

 

Q: What would reasonable accommodations in the courtroom look like for a plaintiff or defendant with an intellectual or developmental disability?

AF: Many steps can be taken in court to accommodate the needs of the intellectually disabled. In my current role at the DA’s Office, I have received specialized training on how to spot defendants, witnesses and victims with potential intellectual disability ranging from developmental to emotional to veterans with PTSD to juveniles in need of specialized school placement to senior citizens with memory loss. I promote use of programs available from providers like CORR, Common Goals, Spirit House, Dr. Brown’s program for veterans with PTSD, Alta Regional and Central Valley Regional as appropriate.

While on the record in court, I take steps to make the defendant, witness or victim who suffers from an intellectual disability comfortable. First, we do court tours while no one is present to alleviate the fear of the unknown. We meet often before court to explain what will happen in court and allow for questions, as this also can eliminate stress and lack of understanding. Finally, I take a number of steps in court to make certain the personal needs are accommodated including: 1. Using simple language; 2. Brevity; 3. Speaking slowly; 4. Encouraging the person to ask questions if anything is confusing; 5. Taking frequent breaks to allow for consultation with attorneys, victim advocates or friends attending in support; and 6. Using patience.

I have found this practice successful not just with defendants, but the numerous witnesses and victims suffering an intellectual disability that have testified on my caseload. My last jury trial involved a man who hit his aunt and uncle in the head with a hammer. The two victims both suffered from severe intellectual disabilities and two other witnesses had PTSD from military service. I was able to accommodate their needs in court through the practices described above and secure a conviction against the perpetrator. I will continue these practices if elected to the Superior Court and will welcome input on any additional accommodations that could be made.