Newsom touts New York-style community court 

Mayor Gavin Newsom said he’ll target quality-of-life offenses such as aggressive panhandling by opening a new "community court" this summer in the Tenderloin.

San Francisco, however, already has 12 community courts throughout The City, including one in the Tenderloin.

The new program Newsom is touting is modeled after New York’s Midtown Community Court, opened in 1993, which takes people committing misdemeanor and lower-level offenses, such as graffiti, prostitution and urinating in public, directly off the street and into a special courthouse that is also a one-stop center for social services.

In the New York model, a Superior Court judge presides over the case and most defendants are required to perform community service or attend a social service group within 24 hours of arraignment.

The program, which heard 17,351 cases in 2005, costs New York taxpayers an additional $1.2 million a year and is also supported by private funding.

"I believe intensely this will provide real hope and real results," Newsom said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Monday. "I’m not advocating for the current system of injustice where we cite people over and over and over again and they go right back out on the streets."

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San Francisco’s existing Community Court system, launched in 1998, was also created to handle misdemeanor and quality-of-life offenses. It uses a panel of neighborhood volunteers to listen to cases, however. Those volunteers discuss the crime’s impact to the community with the defendant and make judgments. Cases are assigned to the community court program through the District Attorney’s Office and do not have the same swift turnaround time as with the New York program.

San Francisco officials say both programs will continue to be called a "community court."

"One is a court in the community, the other is a court run by the community," said Linda Klee, chief of administration for the District Attorney’s Office, adding that San Francisco’s existing community-run court was set up to handle "low-level offenders with minimalist records."

The new program would be for chronic offenders, she said.

"What we’re going for are the most troubled, the most difficult defendants to reach, the ones who are very much in need of treatment," Klee said.

Like the New York model, San Francisco’s Community Court program also doles out community service sentences and some offenders are ordered to receive treatment or counseling. More than 90 percent of participants complete the community service component of their sentence, program head Thom Bateman said.

In 2005, an estimated 1,266 cases citywide were sent to San Francisco’s Community Court panels within a six-month period, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said he is not opposed to the New York court model, but The City should also put more resources into the current community court system.

"I believe the community court system is unnecessarily limited," Mirkarimi said.

Jennifer Friedenbach with the Coalition on Homelessness was dismissive of the "community" moniker on the New York program, calling it a "court set up for poor people."

"We don’t think people who are poor should be brought into the criminal justice system to receive services," she said.

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