Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Community Courts

While the concept described in this article meets the belief by many that crime is caused by social structures and conditions—rather than through the individual choices made by the criminal—and therefore is warmly received by many criminal justice professionals with limited exposure to criminals; it is probably not very effective as a crime reduction technology.

Most of the people going through the community courts are probably those who would have spun out of the criminal justice system themselves; as most experts know that the bulk of crime is committed by only about 16-20% of those who first enter the criminal justice system with the rest transitioning out after one or two arrests.

However, it is the type of program that probably doesn’t do much harm in that it connects people to their community in a way that they might not do on their own, thereby—the hope is—that many of them will see themselves as an important part of the community and less apt to become predators.

A major study done in Los Angeles looked at first-offenders, as noted by Edward Humes, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, in his book about the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles, No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court:

“In 1990, researchers began watching first-offenders arrested in L.A. County in the first six months of that year, Richard among them—11,493 kids in all. Five men and women sat in a special secure room at probation headquarters and read file after confidential file, tracking every one of those kids—for three years. They did not intercede in any case, but merely watched, omnipotent and removed, part of a grand experiment that let each case spin out as it always had, even horror stories like Richards.

“By the end of 1993, the results of their painstaking work had become so appalling to the Probation Department and the juvenile court—and so profoundly threatening to the future of both bureaucracies—that officials have made no public announcement of the findings. But they boil down to this:

“ A little over half—57 percent—of kids who are arrested for the first time are never heard from again. They go straight, shocked by the system, mostly ordinary kids who make one mistake, and know it.

“Of the rest, just over a quarter—27 percent, to be precise—get arrested one or two more times, then they, too, end their criminal careers. But the last 16 percent—that’s sixteen kids out of every one hundred arrested—commit a total of four or more crimes, ranging from theft to murder. They become chronic offenders.” (pp 29-30)

An excerpt from the article on community courts.

“By 11 a.m. on a typical day, Judge Raymond Norko has already seen more than a dozen defendants at the community courthouse on Washington Street: a morning arrest for an open bottle of alcohol, middle-of-the-night loiterers in Hartford parks, train track trespassers.

“After brief, often light-hearted, conversations with Norko, the offenders are sent out of the courtroom in Hartford to meet with counselors who determine if they need social services.

“The loiterers and litterers probably won't. But in some cases — like the person stealing to support a drug habit — this might be the first time they are offered help for the underlying problems that cause them to break the law.

“It's been 10 years since Norko heard his first case in Hartford's community court, and it continues to be a different criminal justice model. In addition to social services being offered in the courthouse, almost every defendant is given a sentence of community service.”