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Unusual court system isn’t for punishment

- Associated Press - Sunday, September 23, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — In most courtrooms, spontaneous applause could get you thrown out.

But in this San Francisco court, it's expected — and strongly encouraged for the defendants.

Bowls of hard candy rest in front of the judge's bench as a reward for people making their weekly court appearances and attending group therapy. Almost daily, the judge awards one standout a $5 grocery store gift card — while the gallery claps and cheers.

These scenes have played out thousands of times at the Community Justice Center, a novel, 4-year-old court system in the city's rough-edged Tenderloin district. It's one of about 40 community courts across the United States that tackle mostly low-level crimes in troubled neighborhoods using judges — not juries — to send defendants to drug treatment, shelter and social services, instead of meting out fines and time in overcrowded jails.

"We go to the root of the problems rather than just throwing them in jail," said the Community Justice Center's lone judge, Lillian Sing.

But it's not all carrots and no sticks. When obviously drunk or drugged defendants stagger into the courtroom, the judge swiftly sends them to jail for a few days to sober up.

"This is called tough love," Judge Sing recently told one teary-eyed defendant as a deputy handcuffed him. "I don't want to see you die on the streets."

U.S. Department of Justice officials say community courts improve public safety by focusing on the crimes that are less high-profile but affect day-to-day life. They say the courts, along with similar rehabilitative courts, represent a shift away from judges just herding people through the system.

"Judges started figuring out they could help solve problems, so there was a switch to looking at outcomes instead of process," said Kim Ball, a senior policy adviser.

And unlike the thousands of specialized drug courts across America, community courts are designed to provide quicker, cheaper justice while improving life in specific neighborhoods or police precincts. Defendants perform community service in the neighborhoods where they break the law. "Taggers" must paint over graffiti. And shoplifters are required to help distribute clothes to the poor.

The movement toward community courts began almost two decades ago in New York City, which established one in midtown Manhattan to crack down on prostitution, graffiti and other street crimes. States with community courts include Minnesota, Indiana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee, Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

While it's been difficult for researchers to determine cost savings, new studies suggest community courts are helping stem crime.

An evaluation of a Washington, D.C., community court by the Westat research firm found this past summer that defendants who successfully completed diversion programs from 2007 to 2009 were half as likely to be repeat defendants in a traditional court.

Russell Canan, presiding judge of the capital's criminal courts, attributes this to defendants getting more attention.

"The judges are engaging with defendants to see what kind of work they are doing, what their school situation is, what type of social services they need," Judge Canan said. And then they coach and inspire them to make good choices.

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