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Friday, August 14, 2009

Early Results Are Positive

One of the new criminal justice initiatives I've been watching with the most interest is the San Fransisco Community Justice Center (mostly on the excellent blog of the San Francisco Superior Court's Collaborative Justice programs, Moving Justice Forward).

Lisa Lightman recently posted a report on the Center's operations since they opened their doors in March. I'm excited to read about their success so far. One thing they've done a very good job of is telling their story in numbers and demonstrating their results:
In the first 100 days since the CJC opened, the program has been able to reduce delay for misdemeanor citations from 45 days to 2 days for the first court appearance. The court has taken most "out of custody" misdemeanor cases, and is increasing its felony cases. The court has successfully engaged people in treatment plans under our diversion laws immediately upon program entry. Of the 160 clients who have engaged in services, 60 accessed care under a justice mandate, 60 defendants voluntarily engaged in services and 40 ‘walked-in’ or were referred from other agencies. There is already a cost-savings story to tell. An estimate of jail bed savings of only 5 CJC defendants totals $23,000. In tracking 2 clients identified as high users of multiple systems (repeated hospital visits, emergency psychiatric treatment, police and fire in a 6 month period), the CJC’s centralized services coupled with court accountability reduced these costs by 50 percent.
Despite my strong support for the Justice Center, I'm concerned about some trends in San Fransisco. Homeless advocates have accused the Justice Center of criminalizing poverty and those who choose or are forced to live on the street (Barbara Ehrenreich also recently wrote about a growing trend in last Sunday's Times). Of more concern is the rapid departure of people of color from the city. Recent years have witnessed a staggering out migration of 40% of African-Americans.

Many of society's most difficult problems inevitably end up in the lap of the criminal justice system. I believe that court's should work to address those issues as creatively and effectively as possible, while at the same time remaining cognizant and working to address the larger systemic issues that are the root causes of these problems. I thought Lisa Lightman summed up the logic of community courts and problem-solving courts quite well:
Research has shown that repeat offenders have a complicated set of problems that cause their criminal behavior. People are landing in the courtroom because other institutional safety nets are no longer in place. The court has become one of the last stops before jail.
Update: I just came across this article from the San Fransisco Examiner, "Seeking Justice For Tenderloin Court" which details the continuing political battles over the fate of the Justice Center and provides an interesting case study for the public policy debates over the relative merits of community courts and justice centers.

Update #2 (8/31/2009): The folks over at the excellent blog "California Corrections Crisis," maintained by faculty and students at UC Hastings College of Law, just posted a comprehensive update on all the developments around the Justice Center, "Community Justice Center Picks Up". Thanks to Julius Lang on the Courtbuilders listserve for the link.

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