Responding to the Community
Restoring Quality of Life
The success of community policing has been heralded in Dallas and across the country. The concept of police officers addressing neighborhood crime and disorder by establishing relationships with community residents and neighborhood groups, has been a contributing factor to the decrease of crime. Spreading the idea of community justice to other branches of the justice system will give courts the ability to meet the needs of the justice system's primary consumer - the neighborhoods that experience crime and its consequences every day.
Community Justice Defined
Community justice is about creating new relationships within the justice system and with stakeholders in the community (such as residents, merchants, religious institutions and schools) to test new and aggressive approaches to public safety, rather than just responding to crime. Partnership and problem solving are the core of community justice.
Involving the Community
Community Courts are problem-solving courts and must devote significant resources to learning about the unique problems of a neighborhood. Solutions to neighborhood problems need to be derived from input from community members, acknowledging that even so-called victimless crimes inflict injury to the community.
Although low-level crime garners few headlines, offenses like public intoxication, public urination, shoplifting, prostitution, truancy and vandalism undermine the quality of life. These quality-of-life crimes have a serious and long lasting impact on a neighborhood. In a centralized court, low-level crimes may be sandwiched between more serious offenses, or may even be perceived as isolated incidents rather than on-going, quality-of-life impairing conditions. A Community Court is specifically designed to address these and other neighborhood problems.
Often courts lack suitable alternative punishments for quality-of-life cases; judges are forced to choose between jail time or nothing. Sometimes just the process of being arrested and arraigned becomes the sole punishment for a low-level offender. In many instances sentences imposed fail to impress either the victim, the community, or the defendant. It is crucial that low-level offenses be taken seriously and defendants be held accountable for their behavior.
The Solution: Combining Punishment and Help
The Community Court concept draws upon local resources to develop a broad menu of constructive responses to low-level or quality-of-life crime. The Court combines punishment and assistance designed to solve the root cause of the problem by sentencing offenders performing community restitution (painting over graffiti, sweeping streets, painting senior citizens' homes) in the neighborhood they have harmed. The Court also provides a variety of social services which may be accessed by non-offending individuals.
Community Courts Improve Justice
- Swift Justice: Mindful that "justice delayed is justice denied," Community Court sentences are designed to emphasize immediacy and certainty. Immediate sentencing, to perform community-based work projects and/or participate in treatment, sends the message that crime has consequences and allows service providers to engage defendants promptly in education, treatment or prevention. No longer will offenders of quality-of-life crimes linger for months on long court dockets.
- Visible Justice: Offenders pay back the community through visible work projects carried out in the harmed community. Immediate dispensation of justice locally communicates to both the offender and the victim that order prevails and there are consequences to criminal behavior.
- Provide Treatment: Efforts are made to divert offenders from further involvement in the criminal justice system by addressing root causes of problems through innovative sentences, which include substance abuse treatment, educational opportunities, job skills training and health care.
- Encourage Police Enforcement: Continuous feedback from neighborhood residents about the outcome of arrests and sentences enables officers to determine the effectiveness of this crime-fighting tool and assures officers that something is being done to address low-level crime. This tool reinforces strong links between community policing and residents.
- Marshal the Energies of New Partners: Local residents, businesses, social service organizations and law enforcement agencies forge creative and cooperative solutions to quality-of-life problems that each have traditionally dealt with separately.