FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — JAN 29, 2014 —
By Steve Marschke
The concept of “neighborhood court” is soon to West Sacramento.
Those accused of certain low-level crimes will have a chance to exchange a court appearance and possible conviction for a chance to negotiate a resolution with a group of local volunteers and a facilitator in “neighborhood court.”
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig told the News-Ledger that the program focuses on “restorative justice” – a concept that cuts across cultures and across the centuries. A modern version of these citizens’ courts is now in operation across the causeway in Davis. It will launch in West Sacramento during the next few months.
The Yolo County version of the neighborhood court follows San Francisco’s model. Reisig said that he has personally watched the Bay Area model in session.
“We have tweaked it a bit to make it more ‘restorative,’” Reisig said.
“Restorative justice is really just a way of having an individual accept responsibility for the harm they’ve cause to the person or community, and finding a way to make it right. It’s all about accountability – making the victim whole.”
This approach is based on “positive, not punitive,” he added.
The neighborhood court model heading to West Sacramento will involve recruiting citizen volunteers to work with a trained “facilitator.” Together, they will meet with alleged offenders and try to hammer out a deal that fits the crime.
To get to neighborhood instead of criminal court, the defendant in a low-level crime – a misdemeanor or infraction case – has to agree to go. In Davis, such cases have included those accused of public drunkenness, vandalism or simple assault.
The victims of the alleged crimes can, if they wish, show up to tell the perpetrator exactly how the crime affected them.
According to an official report of the Davis neighborhood court, victims often appreciate that opportunity. Also, allowing the victim and the offender to communicate can be an effective way to prevent new offenses. One anonymous victim was quoted in the report as saying the victim/offender conference was very satisfying:
“I enjoyed the positive outcome and insightful process,” the battery victim was quoted. “I learned a lot and it provided me with an opportunity to improve my patience.”
“The program is totally voluntary,” explained Reisig. “If somebody is arrested by the police, they can go through the normal process and go to court. Or, if this is an option, they can go to the neighborhood court. If an agreement is reached between the neighborhood court and the offender, there’s a group called the Center for Intervention that monitors the contract.”
That organization – under contract with Yolo County – monitors the deal. The offender pays a “small fee” to be monitored, but won’t be turned away from the program for being unable to pay the fee.
If the offender fulfills his obligations – say, by volunteering a certain amount of community service hours erasing graffiti – the case is closed. There’s no criminal conviction.
If the offender drops the ball, he or she can end up back in “real” court to face the charges. At the moment, reports Reisig’s office, the Davis and UC Davis communities report having held a total of 153 neighborhood court conferences. 95 of those offenders have completed their contract, 28 more are in the process of doing so, and two offenders have dropped the ball.
What kind of offenses has the Davis neighborhood court been handling?
“Keep in mind, Davis is a very different community (from West Sacramento) because of the college students,” Reisig commented. “You have a lot of alcohol-related problems. Most common, maybe, are public drunkenness and alcohol possession.”
Other offenses eligible for neighborhood court include petty theft, vandalism, public urination, noise violations, battery and resisting arrest.
For a theft conviction, says the Yolo County report, an offender might be told to write a four-page essay on the impacts of shoplifting, along with an apology to the store he or she stole from. To answer a charge of public urination, the offender may agree to spend three hours with a local graffiti abatement team.
West Sacramento may see its neighborhood court addressing a different mix of offenses, although the mix may also include alcohol, he said. To be eligible for neighborhood court, not only does the crime have to be a small one, but the offender can’t be on probation or parole, can’t have a criminal history and can’t be facing other criminal charges.
Local service organizations and nonprofits will be invited to become involved so that offenders serve their penance by performing unpaid public service.
The search for West Sacramento neighborhood court panelists and facilitators begins Feb. 20, with a public workshop from 7 to 9 p.m. at the library (1212 Merkley Avenue). Recruitment and training will follow. The volunteers will serve on a single city-wide court.
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