Wednesday, June 11, 2008

COMMUNITY COURTS GROWING

DONNA LEINWAND, USA TODAY Cities and counties increasingly are creating innovative community courts to deal with the growing number of habitual petty criminals that police call "frequent fliers."

Criminals who are arrested repeatedly for crimes such as public drunkenness, trespassing and panhandling are crowding jails and sapping police resources, officials say. The cost of handling small-time criminals who cycle in and out of jail is becoming a more pressing problem for communities as budgets tighten and jail populations swell.

The new courts sentence "frequent fliers" to treatment plans and social services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, instead of jail.

Cities began taking low level crime seriously in the 1990s, says Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation. Now communities - many with overcrowded jails - must deal with these offenders.

Among courts set to open:

- Orange County, Calif., will open a community justice center in August. Defendants will have access to 24 social service agencies, including substance abuse treatment, housing and a mobile pharmacy. Police officers may choose not to charge offenders who agree to seek treatment.

- Newark will open the first phase of its community court project this summer, says Julien Neals, the city's attorney. Last year, the existing court system handled about 500,000 disorderly person offenses, up from 480,000 the previous year, Neals says. Many of the offenders are unemployed or have alcohol, drug or mental health problems, he says. Community court staff will screen defendants to identify their problems and link them with services instead of jail or fines.

- Athens-Clarke County in Georgia will open the Treatment and Accountability Court in July. Mentally ill offenders will be sentenced to treatment plans instead of jail, Superior Court Judge David Sweat says. Completing treatment and tasks will bring rewards, such as bus passes and food coupons, while failures will bring sanctions such as jail time or more contacts with probation officers, he says.

SF CHRONICLE After 18 months of work, a wide coalition of judges, law enforcement officials and social service leaders are proposing a break from the usual. Take suspects arrested for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies - such as shoplifting, car burglaries or small-time drug peddling - to a one-stop court. There, a court commissioner will weigh the case to see if the arrestee is a candidate for detox, supervised housing, health care and even tattoo removal to get a job. If a candidate balks or breaks a promise to seek help, then the case goes back into the conventional court system. The new process is designed to take days, not weeks, as it does now. . . San Francisco takes pride in its image as a groundbreaker on gay rights, the environment and universal health care, to name a few. This program offers another way to add to that praiseworthy image by ending the dead-end criminal cycle in a serious and tough-minded way. The board should back the Justice Center.

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