New court program aims to resolve non-violent crimes
by Seth Hemmelgarn
District Attorney George Gascón recently launched a neighborhood court program aimed at resolving many non-violent crimes quickly, before they go to traditional court.
The effort was formally unveiled this week as a pilot program in the Mission police district, home to the largely LGBT Castro area and other neighborhoods, as well as the Bayview district. The program, which officials say should save the city money and provide some relief to the city's "clogged" court system, launched May 2.
Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Prozan, the out lesbian serving as the prosecutor in the project, said crimes so far have included possessing open containers of alcohol, urinating in public, shoplifting, and some minor battery cases where there was no serious injury to the victim. She estimated there have been a combined 15 cases.
"It's been very rewarding watching investigations at the police stations and being able to talk to some of the offenders, and seeing their willingness to want to participate in this program has been very rewarding," said Prozan, who lives in the Castro.
So far, she said, none of the cases appear to be LGBT-related. Hate crimes won't be considered for the neighborhood courts.
Prozan reviews incidents and meets with offenders. The DA's office said "appropriate low-level offenses" are sent to one of the neighborhood courts, where a panel hears and deliberates the case. There are three volunteer adjudicators in each court.
Panelists can dismiss incidents, direct offenders to community service or restitution, or refer them to mediation or treatment. Prozan said that ideally, cases would each be resolved within three weeks.
Incidents involving people who fail to appear at the district police station or at neighborhood court, or who fail to comply with directives, will be referred to regular criminal court.
"When there is a victim, we want to try to make the victim whole as much as we can," Gascón said at a recent meeting with community members held in the Mission.
He also said through the neighborhood courts, officials would assess what can be done to help people who are cited, since a criminal record could "start precluding you from other opportunities" that could lead to repeat offenses and escalating trouble, he said.
Stu Smith, an out gay man who is an adjudicator for the Mission court, said in an interview this week that the neighborhood system is "a great idea," because the existing system is "clogged."
"I also think it's really an ideal situation for the people within the neighborhood to be able to meet the offender and have a say in some restorative justice; giving the perpetrator an opportunity to make right the crime he committed" before being incarcerated, he said.
The two gay members of the Board of Supervisors joined Gascón at the Mission neighborhood event.
District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents the Castro and other neighborhoods, said he's "very optimistic" about the program.
He said that there isn't always a sense that crimes are progressing through the criminal justice system "in a productive way" and the neighborhood courts could give police "much more incentive to enforce these laws."
District 9 Supervisor David Campos, whose district includes part of the Mission area, said, "The criminal justice system needs to be reformed. ... We need to find ways of involving the community."
San Francisco's community courts started in 1999, and thousands of cases have been heard among 12 courts throughout the city. Those courts are ongoing, but Prozan said they're held monthly, unlike the new neighborhood venues, which are weekly.
The city also has a Community Justice Center, but Prozan explained that one of the differences between that and the neighborhood courts is that the justice center handles cases after they're charged. She said that pre-charging a case costs an average of $300, while post-charging incidents averages $1,200.
Besides hate crimes, other incident types that won't be considered for neighborhood court include stalking and cases where a child has been victimized.
A 60-day review for the program is expected.