Tuesday, May 5, 2009 · by Jeff
by Jeff Adachi
There hasn’t been a lot happening at the Community Justice Center, so I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks. There is no surge of cases to report. The caseload flow is still very low, and although the court is now handling “in-custody” cases at the Hall of Justice in the mornings, there are usually no more than a few cases on in the morning, and no more than a dozen in the afternoon.
There is a degree of uneasiness as the CJC approaches its third month in operation. Although I cannot speak for the others who work at the CJC, most realize that within a few months, the CJC will have to justify its existence against other city services that are being cut or eliminated. Has the CJC lived up to its promise of being a “problem-solving” court that would help address crimes that are plaguing the neighborhood? Has the court become a repository for crimes typically charged against homeless people? Has it delivered the services to the population of folks that need them?
Interestingly, there has been little objective information available about the court. I attended a “community” meeting sponsored by the CJC last week. These meetings are designed to obtain information and feedback from the community. The meeting was attended by about a dozen community members (meaning persons not related to the CJC staff) and they asked questions about the kind of cases the court was hearing and what kind of outcomes were being achieved. The CJC coordinator said that she did not have information concerning the type of cases or the outcomes, although she said that the court had handled some 200 cases and that 40 people had received some type of service or follow-up. However, no further detail was made available.
Because these questions were not answered, it was difficult to have a discussion about just what the court was doing and what kind of results we were seeing. I took advantage of the opportunity to question the police captain from Southern Station who was there to report on the arrests that were being referred by police to the CJC. I asked why people were being arrested and sent to the CJC for possessing small quantities of marijuana (see my previous story on the case of Clarence Wilson), when the city had a policy directing police not to arrest people for marijuana possession alone. The police captain said that it was not their policy to arrest people for possession of marijuana, but there were times when a person who was openly smoking marijuana would be cited for this offense. I knew that the 10 or 12 cases I had seen did not involve people who were openly using marijuana, but instead, had been arrested for mere possession. So I asked for the captain’s phone number and promised to follow up.
While this might seem like a trivial issue, it does waste time and money if police are arresting people for possession of marijuana when they shouldn’t be. Since last week’s meeting, I’ve seen three cases at the CJC, all for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This is a “problem” that could easily be fixed by directing the officers to follow the city’s policy.
So what are the problems that the CJC could potentially address? Those in attendance at the meeting cited drug sales and street violence as recurring problems. However, as the judge pointed out, any crime involving drug sales and street violence is specifically excluded under the case criteria defined by the judge and the prosecutor. These criteria limit the kind of cases that the CJC can hear. When this was explained to community residents, they questioned what use the court could be when it was unable to handle the type of cases which were causing the most problems in the neighborhood.
The police captain had a very different view of the CJC’s role. The captain said that he believed the CJC existed in order to prosecute cases that the District Attorney would not; in other words, the captain said that he felt that CJC should hear cases that would be discharged or dismissed by the District Attorney at the Hall of Justice. This viewpoint, I believe, is a very different from that what the court was originally represented as. I had originally expressed concerns that the court would become a “dragnet” for cases that could not be proven. At this point in the discussion, the prosecutor representing the District Attorney’s office explained that the CJC could not be a repository for cases that would otherwise be dismissed. It would create a separate and different standard of charges cases for people who happened to be arrested in the Tenderloin as opposed to another part of the city. The captain seemed unconvinced, and the discussion moved to another topic.
Another point raised by one of the community members was that a particular landlord was known to be illegally evicting tenants. This was a prevalent problem that resulted in more people being turned into the streets, according to the resident. What could the CJC do about this, he asked? Again, it was explained that the civil landlord-tenant problems are not within the purview of CJC. But what if the landlord is breaking the law, it was asked, could that then be subject to criminal prosecution at the CJC? Again, the question was doted on briefly, not addressed, and the conversation passed on to the next topic.
The only thing, I think, that became clear from the discussion is that everyone, including the participating agencies, had very different expectations of what kind of outcomes the CJC would produce. Because there was no general agreement as to what “problems” the CJC should or could handle, it was entirely unclear what outcomes were to be expected in terms of CJC’s impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
When the CJC is called to stand up and explain what outcomes it has delivered, the question of its effectiveness will have to be measured against the problems and outcomes it has purported to address. Both the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors should be interested in determining whether the CJC has delivered on its promises. Herein lies the problem: if the CJC itself isn’t clear about who and what it is, it will be difficult, if impossible, to come up with objective measurements that point to its success or failure.