[Hpn] shape of things to come?

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 28 Dec 2000 22:16:06 -0700

Are there community courts in your location? How do homeless people fare in
them for quality-of-life status crimes? What affiliations or ambitions do
the "community members" who staff these picayune star chambers typically
have? Business? Real estate? Let yer ol' uncle chance know, ok?


Monday, December 25, 2000 |  Print this story

New Community Courts to Target Minor Crimes
 Justice: Projects in Van Nuys and skid row will seek to improve
neighborhoods by punishing offenses such as graffiti and public urination.

By CAITLIN LIU, HANG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writers

     In the annals of crime, offenses such as graffiti or public urination
may not amount to much.
     But they are not too trivial for the neighborhoods victimized by
vandals and reeking drunks, whose crimes can depress the quality of life.
     To reform petty criminals--as well as force them to make amends to
neighborhoods they offended--community court is coming to Los Angeles and,
along with it, a police crackdown on minor crimes.
     Brought together by Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, a group of
judges, city prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement and community
leaders plans to open the courts in pilot projects planned for Van Nuys and
downtown's skid row. The new Van Nuys court is expected to start in the
first half of next year, with skid row to follow.
     "It will represent an important step forward in how . . . everyone
approaches misdemeanor offenses," said Rick Schmidt, head of the Los Angeles
city attorney's Van Nuys office.
     Across the nation, about a dozen community courts have sprung up in the
last several years in places such as New York City; Denver; Portland, Ore.;
Austin, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Fla. Elsewhere, at least 13 community
courts are being planned, according to the New York-based Center for Court
     Such courts generally deal only with such offenses as vandalism,
disorderly conduct, public intoxication, public urination, battery,
shoplifting, trespassing and prostitution.
     "Too often we consider these victimless crimes," said John Feinblatt,
director for the Center for Court Innovation. "But they aren't victimless
crimes. Blocks and neighborhoods are victims of these crimes."
     A community court seeks to make offenders pay restitution through
service, and it emphasizes rehabilitation. Offenders are referred to the
appropriate social services such as job training, counseling, drug
treatment, homeless shelters and health care.
     Though begun as purely local initiatives, the new Van Nuys and skid row
courts will be primarily financed by the federal government. Congress
recently passed a federal budget that includes $1 million, secured by Rep.
Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), for funding Los Angeles community
     Some organizers have high hopes for these courts, but others say it is
too early to tell what kind of impact they will have.
     In the Van Nuys courtroom of Commissioner Mitchell Block, where the new
court is planned, many defendants are already being ordered to undergo
counseling or enroll in drug treatment. Most of the petty criminals in his
court--perhaps 90%--are already performing community service, Block said.
     Currently, offenders must perform service in neighborhoods where they
live rather than in the neighborhoods sullied by their crimes, if the two
are not the same. 
     Community court, however, will require service in the neighborhood
where the crime occurred. A professional staff evaluator will interview
defendants in depth to make appropriate referrals, to "get to the root of
the problem . . . connect with something that will change behavior," said
Jim Leahy, executive director of the Volunteer Center in Van Nuys.
     Organizers acknowledge that community court will be similar to Los
Angeles County Superior Court's Drug Court program or the newly opened
Homeless Court in skid row in its focus on rehabilitation and reducing
     But community court will be the first to give ordinary citizens a
greater say in the judicial process. Integral to its operations will be an
advisory panel of people who will meet regularly with the judge to suggest
sentencing options that will best benefit their neighborhood.
     Flip Smith, the longtime owner of Flip's Tires in Van Nuys, believes
that getting citizens involved in the criminal justice system could help
reduce crime. 
     People in the community "would become more aware of crime. They would
watch out for one another. For instance, if they saw something suspicious,
they'll write down a license plate number," Smith said.
     Community courts are based on the idea that even the most petty
offenses can undermine a neighborhood's well-being. Advocates tout the
"broken windows" theory of crime prevention: that such offenses create a
chaotic environment that fosters a neighborhood's downward spiral in which
property values fall, people are afraid to be outdoors, businesses suffer
and more serious crimes proliferate.
     Police More Likely to Issue Citations
     To improve a neighborhood, proponents of the broken windows theory say,
the reverse must happen. Residents must refuse to tolerate minor crimes and
spruce up their neighborhood.
     In places with community courts, such as New York City, the effort is
often coupled with a crackdown on minor crimes. The same is expected to
happen in Los Angeles.
     "We want the graffiti vandals arrested. We want the people urinating on
the sidewalk arrested. We want the prostitutes arrested," said Los Angeles
Police Cmdr. Sharon Papa, who also worked on the skid row community court
project. "We'll be doing more enforcement violations that weren't taken care
of in the past." 
     When police officers see a petty violation now, they think "why enforce
it, because the [city attorney] won't prosecute it," Papa said. "With the
community court, officers will be more likely to take action when they know
[their citations] will be followed through."
     In Van Nuys, residents and business owners say they are eager for a
community court. 
     The new Van Nuys court will handle crimes committed in an area bordered
by Sepulveda Boulevard to the west, Woodman Avenue to the east, Vanowen
Street to the north and Oxnard Street to the south. Despite a much-heralded
Targeted Neighborhood Initiative that has already injected $3 million into
that neighborhood, the community could still use help, those who live and
work there say. 
     "The homeless are still here. The graffiti is still here. We aren't
dealing with the problems. Community court will be the missing piece of the
puzzle in the revitalization of Van Nuys," said Candido Marez of the Knights
of Columbus, a Catholic family fraternal service organization.
     "It's been proven in New York that when you hold people accountable for
little things, it won't escalate into bigger things," Papa said. "If New
York can have a dramatic result, then we can too in L.A."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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