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Community courts let the punishment fit the crime, compassionately

Incarceration rates in the United States increased more seven-fold between 1980 to 2010. Many communities are turning to alternative forms of justice, such as community courts, as a means to break the cycle of incarceration.

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    Public defender Jon Newman (l.) and lead prosecutor Thomas O’Brien get ready for a busy day at the community court in Hartford, Conn.
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Earlier this year, Marshall Little walked into a Wal-Mart in Hartford, Conn., and tried to walk out with a GPS navigator without paying. A few months later, he walked into a supermarket and tried to leave with $226.26 worth of food.

“Marshall, how many times have you been arrested?” Judge Raymond Norko asked when Mr. Little appeared before him at Hartford Community Court.

“Four times?” Little said. “Four times, I think. Enough.”

“Everyone says ‘enough,’ ” Judge Norko replied.

“I’m not coming back,” Little said.

Norko sentenced him to 60 days in jail and sent him on his way.

That’s one of the stricter sentences that Norko has dealt while presiding over the Hartford Community Court. More often, his sentences resemble courses of treatment arranged by social workers – counseling for some, community service for others. And the judge’s involvement doesn’t stop there.

Later that afternoon, a woman struggling with substance abuse approached the bench. It was not her first time in front of the judge.

“I did everything you said, Your Honor,” she told the judge.

After consulting with the prosecutor, Norko set a time for her to return six weeks later.

“When you come in,” he said, “no excuses.... If you come in positive [for drugs] I’m going to jail you.”

That kind of personal follow-up may seem unusual for the court system. But the Hartford Community Court is part of a different breed of specialty courts that are popping up across the country. These operations have small staffs and deal only with specific crimes in specific neighborhoods. Some focus on drug offenses; others handle cases involving veterans.

Community courts, like Norko’s, deal with so-called quality-of-life offenses in high-crime, urban neighborhoods. These relatively minor, always nonviolent, crimes range from loitering and panhandling to shoplifting and trespassing.

In a traditional criminal court, those cases are often dismissed or expedited as judges and lawyers devote more time to violent offenses. And offenders frequently return to the streets, where many offend again.

In Hartford, this revolving-door system prompted local community groups to campaign for a community court to address persistent minor offenses. Hyacinth Yennie, head of the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group in Hartford, says it was common in the 1990s to see people drinking and urinating in the street.

“It was almost lawless,” she says.

“The prosecutor [would] just throw them back out because they thought ‘these are just nuisance complaints,’ ” Ms. Yennie says.“These aren’t just nuisance complaints. They’re quality-of-life issues that affect us every day.”

Community courts allow for the best of both worlds, according to Chris Pleasanton, the program coordinator at the Hartford Community Court. With community courts handling all quality-of-life crimes, criminal courts are able to focus their attention on more serious and violent crimes. In turn, the community courts can work with defendants to address the root causes of their offenses, which often stem from mental illness and substance abuse.

“We have to kind of decode the person and figure out how to best help them,” Mr. Pleasanton says. “We don’t want to see people continually spiral because they’re not connecting with the services they need.”

The community court system is designed to get a defendant into and out of court as soon as possible, minimizing costs in the short run and, ideally, the long run as well. Police officers can issue court summonses for quality-of-life crimes on the spot, and the defendant has to show up at the court within two days. Most defendants receive a day of community service, according to Norko, but punishment can range from multiple days of community service to jail time, especially if the individual has past offenses.

Most of the cases are eventually dismissed after the defendant has fulfilled his or her obligations. Any violent crimes go straight to the city’s criminal court, a feature Norko says is important in making the public feel secure that violent criminals aren’t being given softer sentences.

Community courts started to appear in the early to mid-1990s, according to Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York. Mr. Berman was part of the team that set up America’s first community court in Midtown Manhattan.

Community courts fell out of favor in the late ’90s, Berman says, as “tough on crime” measures became popular. But with US prisons now more crowded than ever and weighing heavily on state budgets, community courts seem to be back in vogue. Today there are at least 40 community courts in 14 states and Washington, D.C.

“When we started doing these things, we were really swimming against the tide. Everything in the ’90s was really about getting tough on crime,” Berman says. But now, “I think the community justice idea is going to have another moment in the sun.”

Success can be hard to measure in community courts. The most common criticism leveled against the community court system is that it is often unable to prevent relapses into criminal behavior, known as recidivism.

Criminal-justice researchers are trying to put together solid statistical evidence of how community courts are performing. Some of the early returns are encouraging. A 2014 study from the RAND Corp. looked at the community court in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. It analyzed the nearly 10,000 cases involving 6,000 defendants that the court heard from March 2009, when the court opened, through December 2013. After examining recidivism rates for defendants, the researchers concluded that those tried in the Tenderloin Community Justice Center were 8.9 to 10.3 percent less likely to be rearrested within a year.

“If you want to spread [these] ideas, you have to go county to county and convince people. You have to convince hard-bitten, skeptical cops and prosecutors, so you have to have data behind you,” Berman says.

The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the civilized world, according to the US Department of Justice, and municipalities are under enormous pressure to reduce their incarceration rates. Californians voted in November to reclassify some lower-level crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies, a response to calls from the US Supreme Court for the state to address its overcrowded prisons. Commentators have called the measure the “end of California’s tough-on-crime era.”

Denise O’Donnell, director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, says community courts are an “important element” in reducing recidivism. “We know far too many people are involved in our criminal-justice system,” Ms. O’Donnell says. “So it’s really critical we focus on what we can do to reduce unnecessary incarceration and improve recidivism rates in the country, and community courts just have a really good track record of doing that.”

But even if community courts do work, do they justify the cost it takes to keep them running? The Hartford Community Court costs roughly $2.6 million a year to operate.

And for some defendants, an intense focus on rehabilitation can be counterproductive, says Christine Cole, former executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.

“But if they’re very expensive and creating very good outcomes for the people most likely to recidivate, then that’s a good investment, isn’t it?” Ms. Cole says.

On a broader level, she says the lack of social services for individuals who need them most means some of them resort to the court system to find those services. In the past, courts seem to have reacted to this demand in the only way they knew how: They convict and imprison people, she says.

Some people have become frustrated with the inability of criminal courts to address the underlying social issues that drive low-level crime, even though it’s not the fundamental purpose of these courts, Cole says. Community courts appear to be a popular response.

In many cases, a defendant can arrive for a court date in the morning, see the judge in the afternoon, and meet with a social worker before he or she leaves. Several social service groups work in the same building and can do same-day drug tests, detox, and counseling on-site.

Thomas O’Brien, a senior assistant state’s attorney and the Hartford Community Court’s lead prosecutor, said he was a skeptic when he first volunteered to work in the court more than three years ago. Now he says he’s a convert.

“I love it. There’s more ability to adapt, to be creative with how you do your job here than almost anywhere else,” he says.

Most of the judicial system, he says, tries to “squeeze people” through the process. Traditional criminal courts can rush through a conviction that can have a permanent effect on a person’s life, including his or her ability to get a job, a house, or a loan.

A criminal court conviction can also fail to address what caused the person to commit the crime, Mr. O’Brien adds. He uses shoplifting as an example, which many see as an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment crime.

“It’s a fascinating crime,” he says. “People don’t just act out and go and do things. There’s a thought process leading up to it.

“Community courts take the time they need to talk to [perpetrators],” he adds. “We hold people accountable and then we give them a chance to redeem themselves.”

Read more about Judge Norko and his work at the Hartford Community Court.

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