An initiative underway to create the first community courts in Los Angeles could improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods by attacking the causes of crime and blight in a new way.
Neighborhoods suffering from vandalism, graffiti, public drunkenness and other quality-of-life misdemeanors lose business, see residential and commercial property values decline, and often give up hope.
The current practice of fining low-level offenders or sentencing them to brief jail time does nothing to help communities or to lower the risk of recidivism. But across the nation, in areas including New York City's Times Square, cities have begun using community courts to reverse a downward spiral in the quality of life.
Community courts help restore neighborhoods in two ways. They redefine the justice system's approach to low-level crimes by requiring misdemeanor offenders to fix the community problems they've caused, such as graffiti or vandalism. Community courts also connect offenders with job training, health care, drug treatment or other social service programs to address the underlying problems and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
Many crimes harm not only individual victims, but entire communities. Community courts involve community members in imposing sentences that undo the damage. They also let community members judge the court's effectiveness by incorporating a meaningful citizen evaluation process.
Community courts have features that mainstream courts do not, including regular neighborhood meetings to assess progress on abating quality-of-life crime; community members who help create sentencing options by identifying locations in need of repair or clean-up, and experts who update the courts on the best social service programs for offenders. These elements deepen the ties among neighborhood, offender and court, making the local justice system integral to solving significant community problems.
Neighborhoods vary, and not all community courts are the same. In 1993, New York built courthouses in Times Square and Brooklyn just for community courts, equipping them with detention and drug treatment programs and child care and public meeting facilities, and staffing them with social service workers, victim advocates and community service managers.
Judges in New York often spend a significant amount of time in the neighborhoods they serve, learning what crimes matter most and where community service would make a difference. Community members meet with offenders to discuss the problems their crimes have caused, while offenders perform wide-ranging community services.
The results are encouraging. In mid-town Manhattan, arrests for prostitution fell 59% during the first two years of the court's operation. Arrests for illegal vending dropped 24% in the first year. In Hartford, Conn., where the community court serves the entire city, arrest-to-arraignment time has been cut from two weeks to 48 hours, and chronic problems, such as public drinking, have all but disappeared.
Here in Los Angeles, planning for community court pilot projects is underway in two very different neighborhoods--Van Nuys and downtown's skid row. In both places, teams of judges, prosecutors, public defenders, public interest lawyers, social services providers, police, business owners and community activists have joined together to create community courts oriented to specific neighborhood needs.
On skid row, the court will likely focus on public health and safety issues related to homelessness and mental illness. Sentences may include psychological treatment and mandatory programs for substance abuse.
In Van Nuys, the court will likely deal more with nuisance violations and the collateral damage of gang activity. Mandatory work projects, such as caring for park trees and cleaning sidewalks, may be combined with job training and classes in English as a second language. The Van Nuys court will test the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention, employing aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses to forestall more serious criminal activity.
A $50,000 needs assessment recently approved by the City Council will provide detailed information on the problems both neighborhoods face, with findings based partly on a series of town hall meetings. Recommendations from the study will shape the courts' focus. Seed money for the courts may come from the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, thanks to a request by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles).
Change of this magnitude will be difficult, but the time is right. Our local court system was divided until recently between a superior court, with jurisdiction over felonies, and a municipal court, with authority over misdemeanors. Last year, the courts were unified. Although truly integrating them presents numerous challenges, it also contributes to an atmosphere of reinvention.
Los Angeles should seize this opportunity and begin to build a court system for misdemeanor crime based on restorative rather than merely punitive justice.