Monday, March 16, 2009 · by Richard
You may have heard or read that the new Community “Justice” Center (CJC) opened last week. Based on Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Justice Center, the CJC is supposed to solve neighborhood problems like drugs, crime, prostitution and theft. The court is a full-fledged court, except that it is situated in the Tenderloin and deals with misdemeanor and low-level felony cases. Although this new court has been in the planning stages for several years, including a pilot run early last year, this is the first time that the court has begun to hear a regular calendar of cases. Initially, the court was seen as an answer to “quality of life” infractions and crimes; however,advocates for the court promised that it would not be a “homeless court” and would seek to deal with a broader range of offenses and cases, including felony cases. Participation in the court is supposed to be voluntary; a person can choose to opt-in or opt-out. Those who decide not to have their cases heard in the new court can have their case heard at the Hall of Justice 850 Bryant Street.
I was present in the new court during its first week to see what was going on. Most of the cases involved individuals cited for sleeping on the sidewalk, possessing paraphenalia and petty theft. There were only 5 or 6 cases calendared each day. For the first week, all of the cases were either discharged or dismissed by the DA.
There was one case last week where the prosecution decided to file. It involved a homeless woman who had been cited multiple times for sleeping on the sidewalk. She had no other criminal history and had received multiple citations from the same police officer. She did not come to court and the DA said she would file a complaint and ask that a bench warrant be issued. Since I was concerned that a bench warrant would be issued for her arrest, I offered to attempt to locate her so she would not be taken into custody. She was found at her usual spot, and, because she had an existing relationship of trust with one of our attorneys, agreed to come to court to clear the matter up.
Once in court, the Judge wanted the client to be referred to services and to come back the next day. Because I doubted very much that the client would show up, I proposed that the client meet with the social worker that day, and then afterwards, the case would be dismissed. The judge said no.
I asked that the case be set for a jury trial on a no-time-waiver basis. At this point, the judge agreed to voluntarily ask the client if she wanted services and then dismiss the case, which is what happened. After the client met with the social worker, the social worker reported that the client was resistant to services because she would not accept a shelter bed. I knew that the client really wanted permanent housing, not a shelter bed, and expressed her position in court. I informed the judge that the client had negative experiences with shelters.
The next day the Mayor’s office came up with a hotel room the client could move into. We checked out the room, and then showed the apartment to the client. However, the client was not ready to commit to move into the room, and so she is still on the street. We’ve tried to locate her since, without luck. But we will keep trying.
Since that first case, we have helped one man get into a temporary shelter, and another man agreed to participate in counseling to help mediate disputes. The vast majority of cases have been discharged, and no one has been convicted of any crime to date. Even in cases where the individual seeks to participate in services, that participation is completely voluntary. I suspect this may change as the number of cases increases.
Interestingly, there is no jail or holding cell. This means that no one can be placed into custody, at least for now. The holding cell won’t be built until later this year, so the plan is to have custody cases at 850 Bryant. This doesn’t make much sense, since we’ll have to go back and forth each day.
I have decided to staff the court myself. Our office had originally been promised two attorneys to staff the court. A week before the court opened, I was told that the Mayor’s office would not provide the staff promised, and that the District Attorney and Public Defender would be expected to staff the court from it existing staff. Because our attorneys handled specific clients and caseloads, we can’t simply pull someone away from their courtroom assignment, leaving their clients without representation.
Because our staffing is short at this point, we really can’t spare any staff for the CJC. The DA’s office has two investigations and two attorneys staffing the court. We just do not have enough staff to assign to this new court, since we still have to staff the existing courts. Simin Shamji, who oversees our specialty courts and reentry programs, will be assisting me, and helping to develop a strong services component to our work.
Our new offices are located right next to the court, which is at 575 Polk Street. To get to the office, you go up to the second floor and our two offices are near the rear of the building. Feel free to come by and say hello anytime. We are open for business and ready to defend the public we serve.
I plan to provide weekly posts and updates as to what’s happening at the court. Please check here often.