- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

District of Columbia Superior Court officials yesterday announced a program that will lighten their caseload by relying on mediators to help suspects and supposed victims hash out their grievances together.

The program will apply only to certain crimes. It will allow those charged with assault, theft or unlawfully entering or destroying someone's property to have those charges eliminated from their record. Felonies, domestic violence, serious injury or cases involving sex or child abuse will not be referred for mediation.

"I'm very pleased with the partnership we have established," said U.S. Attorney Wilma Lewis yesterday. "If it is as successful as I think it will be, it should be a long-lasting one."

The $100,000, privately funded program called Community Misdemeanor Mediation Service enables suspects and victims with established relationships to agree to talk things over in front of a mediator. Its primary focus, Miss Lewis said, is to resolve interpersonal disputes and address underlying conflict.

Miss Lewis agreed to the program with Steven Dinkin, director of the Community Dispute Resolution Center (CDRC), and Superior Court Judge Eugene Hamilton. The program did not work extensively with the Metropolitan Police Department.

Yesterday was the first the public and most Metropolitan police officers, who make misdemeanor arrests heard of the program, although it began July 17.

"The matters that will be referred to mediation lie in the discretion of this office," Miss Lewis said. "We are the key player here, along with the dispute resolution center, and we will decide what cases will be mediated."

Police officers expressed support for the partnership, despite the lack of input the U.S. Attorney's Office has sought from the department.

"It appears to be a good idea," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey after reading about the program in a press release yesterday. "We'll assist with them any way we can."

The D.C. program hopes to mediate 150 to 250 cases a year a small portion of the court's caseload and will work in conjunction with justice programs like community prosecution, community defense and community policing.

It also hopes to gain federal funding, either from the D.C. government or Justice Department grants. Mediators are currently volunteers, but money is still needed to cover administrative costs and training for mediators.

Two cases have already been mediated, and six more are on the program's docket.

One case involved a workplace altercation between two employees, with one facing an assault charge for injuring the other. After both victim and perpetrator met with Mr. Dinkin and George Washington University law professor Carol Izumi, the assailant agreed to pay the victim's medical bills in exchange for the U.S. Attorney's Office dropping the charges, which carried a maximum jail term of 180 days, Mr. Dinkin said.

The other case involved two family members, one of whom had taken the other's car and been involved in an accident. The complainant decided to press charges because of her family member's underlying drug problem.

The mediation process concluded, and the second-degree theft charge that carries up to 180 days in jail was dropped after the defendant agreed to enter drug counseling, Mr. Dinkin said.

"People won't have to spend the time and effort of going through the court system," Mr. Dinkin said. "It can be time-consuming. This is more expedient way of dealing with it. They want to move on in their lives, and mediation can help."

The program, which has been in the works for 15 months, is based on a previous D.C. mediation service that operated from 1979 until 1994. Judge Hamilton believes the new program is more "sophisticated," and Mr. Dinkin said that the pool of cases is "fairly significant."

Similar programs are in place in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and Annapolis.

A similar program in Howard County refers neighborly arguments that are not designated as criminal offenses to mediation, along with any complaint that does not warrant trial.

In those cases, prosecutors work with the sheriff's office to see if charges are warranted, something that will not happen in the District.

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