Community Courts

Cities around the country have, in recent years, involved courts in solving complex neighborhood problems and building stronger communities (Lee, 2000). Community courts stem from collaborations that address the low-level crime that is part of daily life. Offenders are required to compensate neighborhoods, through community service, as well as to engage in social services that will help them to address their problems. The court establishes a partnership with the community, setting up community advisory boards and responding to particular concerns of individual communities. The community court is used as a gateway to treatment and social services for low-level offenders.

Launched in 1993, the Midtown Community Court began to target quality-of-life offenses such as prostitution, illegal vending, graffiti, shoplifting, fare avoidance, and vandalism in downtown Manhattan in New York (Lee, 2000). The decision to establish the Court grew out of a belief that the traditional court response to these low-level offenses 'was neither constructive nor meaningful to victims, defendants, or the community', resulting in community dissatisfaction with the courts and producing 'revolving door justice' (Sviridoff et al., 1997, p. 1). Instead of the usual sentence of credit for time already served in jail, the Midtown Court sentences low-level offenders to pay back the neighborhood through community service while offering them help with problems that include addiction, mental illness, and lack of job skills. The Court promotes a community-focused, problem-solving approach to solving quality-of-life community problems by collaborating with court administrators and community and criminal justice agencies. Social workers from the court, for example, join police officers on the beat to engage homeless and other street people and encourage them to come to the court voluntarily for social services. The Court has devoted an entire floor for the scheduling and monitoring of alternative sanctions and the provision of court-based social services. Separate space has been allocated to service providers from city and community-based agencies to respond to defendants' problems with substance abuse, housing, health, education, and employment. With the Midtown Court as a model, cities around the country are crafting their own community courts based on the needs of their individual communities.

An evaluation of the Midtown Community Court found that the court was effective in meeting most of its objectives (Sviridoff et al., 1997). First, low-level offenders, who in the past had received little attention and few sanctions, were now receiving longer sentences that frequently combined community service with social services such as referrals to drug treatment. Community service compliance rates by offenders were high and accompanied by substantial reductions in concentrations of prostitution, unlicensed vending, and graffiti. Community attitudes and perceptions were transformed from initial skepticism to enthusiastic confidence in the court's ability to reduce local quality-of-life problems and to change patterns of offending. Judges reported that they did things differently at Midtown because expanded information and strict accountability promoted the use of court-based alternative sanctions programs. They were confident that they could find out what happened when they sentenced an offender to social service programs, including long-term treatment, and were therefore more willing to take risks. Defendants generally perceived the Midtown Court as cleaner, faster, and tougher than the downtown court. They were aware that Midtown Court monitored compliance closely, and viewed sentencing as consistent and fair, even if tougher. They particularly noted that the Midtown program staff treated them like human beings.

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