San Francisco's Neighborhood Court system saves money and makes offenders contemplate their crimes 

From left, neighborhood court panelists Al Dockus, Lisa Benau and a man who did not wish to be named hear a case. They can’t assign jail time, but they can make offenders do community service or take classes. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • From left, neighborhood court panelists Al Dockus, Lisa Benau and a man who did not wish to be named hear a case. They can’t assign jail time, but they can make offenders do community service or take classes.

Once upon a crime in San Francisco, an underage college student caught shoplifting a bottle of vodka from a liquor store ended up in the same courtroom with much more hardened criminals.

The shopkeeper who was robbed would see little in the way of justice or restitution. That’s because the judge, overwhelmed with more serious criminal cases, would send the teenage thief home with barely a warning.

Instead, the real punishment was reserved for the taxpayers, at a cost of $1,500 for that shoplifter’s single court appearance. That money helped pay for judges, lawyers, court clerks, sheriff’s deputies and so forth. Such costs add up when you consider that San Francisco prosecutors handle upward of 5,000 misdemeanor cases annually.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a recent interview.

But this wasteful and unproductive scenario is becoming a thing of the past due to the rapidly expanding neighborhood court system that Gascón implemented when he took office.

That program, in which alleged perpetrators stand before regular people instead of judges, is not only 80 percent cheaper than the conventional prosecutorial approach to such cases, but Gascón believes it also is a more meaningful way to mete out justice to low-level offenders.

Last year, his office’s prosecutors transferred more than 600 cases out of misdemeanor court to one of 10 neighborhood courts, Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said. By 2014, Gascón’s office wants to increase that number to more than 2,000 cases.

There are neighborhood courts for each of The City’s 10 police districts. The hearings typically are held in community centers. Instead of judges, volunteer citizens preside over these cases. Offenders face a tribunal of three citizens, all of whom receive training and are called panelists. About 200 civic-minded individuals, some of them retirees, have signed up and become panelists. There’s currently a waiting list to become one.

These panelists handle crimes that occurred in the police district in which they live. That way, offenders come to clearly understand how their crimes affected their neighbors.

Panelists cannot send offenders to jail, but they can order them to complete community service or attend classes or programs aimed at curbing their criminal behavior. A representative from the pretrial diversion program advises panelists on the programs available for such low-level offenders.

“When panelists sitting at the table are … saying to the offenders, ‘I live here, I work here, or I have a business here,’ I think it’s a message that is heard differently by people,” said Katy Miller, the assistant district attorney who manages the neighborhood courts program. “I think it has a different impact than when a judge is saying, ‘This is the punishment for what you did.’”

Panelists are instructed to focus less on punishing offenders than on ensuring that their victims receive justice and retribution. For instance, if a teenage vandal is busted for graffiti, he might be ordered to clean up his and other neighborhood graffiti and attend a youth program. Most perpetrators also have to write an apology letter to their victims.

Victims often come to express how they were affected by the crime.

“They get an opportunity to be heard in a way they will never be heard in court,” Gascón said.

To be eligible for neighborhood court, offenders must admit to their crimes. They have an incentive to do so. If they adhere to the panelists’ orders and don’t reoffend within a year, the crime will not go on their criminal record.

And what is said in neighborhood court cannot be used against the participants in a court of law.

While the DA says this system is a better way to handle low-level crimes, he admits it’s too soon to tell whether it deters offenders from committing additional crimes.

“We’re currently tracking outcomes and tracking offenders; we just need to build up enough data,” Gascón said. “But the early signs are promising. Anecdotally, we are finding out offenders that go through this process have been impacted in a very different way.”

The pioneering system has garnered interest from district attorneys of other counties. District attorneys in Yolo and Santa Barbara counties are looking at replicating the neighborhood courts in their jurisdictions, Miller said.

“I just got an email from Portland, Maine, about a phone conference to talk about neighborhood courts,” Miller added.

Prosecutors believe the system simply makes sense.

“The courts are backed up, every single person in the criminal justice system has a lot to deal with,” said Assistant District Attorney Marc Massarweh, the neighborhood prosecutor for the Northern and Richmond police districts.

“They’re not dangerous career criminals,” he added. “It doesn’t make sense to have an 18-year-old who stole a bottle of vodka from Lucky’s up in front of a criminal jury.”

Fees help to make community a safer place to live

Along with being vastly cheaper to administer than the typical misdemeanor court process, the neighborhood court system also raises funds for public safety projects in The City.

When offenders attend neighborhood court, they must pay restitution to their victims along with fines that go into a community restitution fund. Every year, nonprofits representing city neighborhoods can apply to receive some of those funds for local safety projects.

In this year’s round, the fund has collected $35,000 to offer 11 city projects, said Katy Miller, the assistant district attorney managing the neighborhood courts program.

A project can be something as simple as installing street lighting in a dark corridor, or beautifying a stretch of sidewalk, Miller said. The money also can be used by organizations on projects that prevent youth crimes.  

Last year, Miller said, one project gave cameras to young people who photographed aspects of their neighborhoods that needed improvement. Afterward, the neighborhood came together to address the problems.

 “We usually get a very diverse range of bids,” Miller said.

Case Studies:

Graffiti artist refuses to repent, frustrates panel deciding his fate

The accused tagger wore a hat and headphones throughout his neighborhood court hearing. He drank noisily from a thermos bottle while panelists spoke. His behavior rubbed the panelists and attorneys the wrong way.

“I don’t believe a word coming out of his mouth,” panelist Al Dockus said at one point during deliberations.

The tagger did apologize for the graffiti he created last summer on Pine Street, and promised to clean it up. Yet he also evaded the panel’s questions and at one point tried to stare down Dockus. And he denied being a vandal.

“It was a picture,” he said.

Later, he was asked to suggest his own punishment.

“I made something dirty,” he stated without much effort. “I should clean it.”

After the man left the room to allow for deliberations, panelists expressed shock at his behavior. While he was gone, however, Cedric Akbar, the program manager for the nonprofit San Francisco Pretrial Diversion Project, explained to the panelists that the vandal was “very nervous” and might suffer from bipolar disorder. He also reminded panelists that they must focus on the graffiti incident, not the man’s attitude.

The panelists agreed, with one saying, “I realize we don’t punish attitude.”

When the tagger returned, he accused Dockus of mean-mugging him. Dockus responded by saying he was born with one face, and apologized if it didn’t come off as friendly.

At first, the man wasn’t accepting of his punishment, which included 40 hours of graffiti cleanup and a letter of apology to the property owner. He complained that he couldn’t perform the cleanup because he worked seven days a week at a “personal job.” He even considered taking his chances in criminal court, where his case began before it was rerouted to the neighborhood court.

But after he was told he could receive more than double the amount of community service hours in criminal court, he accepted the 40 hours and left — still grimacing, and still wearing headphones.

College student apologizes for swiping vodka, gets homework

The visibly nervous college student spoke softly to the panelists who were hearing his case. But he perked up when asked what the legal age to drink alcohol should be. Eighteen, he declared.

The teenager said that what got him into trouble is not an alcohol addiction or a violent streak. In essence, he suggested that he was just a college kid having fun on the September day that he stole a $27 bottle of Smirnoff from a supermarket and got into a brief struggle with a security guard.

“How do you think we should handle this?” panelist Lisa Benau asked the student.

The teen suggested some community service hours and an apology letter to the supermarket. The self-proclaimed “B” student added that his school has already put him on notice for the shoplifting incident.

The panelists agreed with his suggestion.

“We don’t focus on the punishment,” Benau said. “We look at restoring harm. We want all the victims to be brought whole again.”

And so the student was ordered to write a letter of apology to the security guard and the store. Also, because the panelists believed he needed to learn more about the ramifications of his shoplifting, he was ordered to attend classes on the topic. And he was told to attend two hours of classes dealing with underage drinking and violence.

Panelist Al Dockus called the punishment a “little hand slap,” but said it doesn’t make sense to derail a college student over one dumb decision.

“C’mon,” he said, “I was in college once.”


Man sees error of his ways after angrily shoving  store employee

The retail worker who shoved a clerk at a downtown FedEx store in October was calm and remorseful in neighborhood court.

He nodded in agreement as a police report about the incident was read aloud. After an argument that began over a receipt, the report said, the retail worker pushed the FedEx clerk and ripped out a phone cord.

The clerk was not injured, and no damage was caused.

“I take full responsibility,” he told three panelists. “I lost my temper.”

The retail worker’s only excuses for his behavior were that he was stressed out and he is Puerto Rican. The animated body language in Puerto Rican culture can be misinterpreted, he reasoned.

The retail worker had no criminal record, which is partly why the panelists believed he was sincere in his apology. But they weren’t about to send him off without punishment.

He was ordered to write a letter of apology to the victim and attend two hours of anger-management class. A slap on the wrist, for certain, but he was reminded that the incident could go on his record if he reoffends in the next year.

Such behavior will not be tolerated in San Francisco, panelist Lisa Benau told him.

“We understand you’re from a different culture and you have your body language,” Benau said. “But you’re living in this culture.”

When it comes to stress, Benau said, “You have to be able to deal with it in a way that doesn’t harm other people and take up police resources.”

The retail worker was appreciative when he left.


Drug user’s excuses fail to help her cause after shoplifting

The stylish 23-year-old woman from Marin County who was busted stealing $380 worth of vibrators from Good Vibrations wasn’t bashful when she noticed members of the media at her hearing.

“I feel like I’m famous,” she said. “I feel like I’m Lindsay Lohan.”

She was meeting panelists for a second time to assess whether she had fulfilled their orders from a prior hearing.

She asked for their patience, then offered a long explanation for why she hadn’t heeded their recommendation to enter a drug rehab program. She offered a letter from the hospital as evidence and declared her dedication to residential treatment.

During deliberations, panelists appeared sympathetic to her struggle. But pretrial diversion program manager Cedric Akbar told them not to trust her every word.

“This is a heroin addict, no matter what she says,” Akbar said. “And they need structure.”

One of the panelists reminded his colleagues that they must focus on repairing harm from the shoplifting incident, not her drug or mental health matters. The panelists’ primary role is to make the victims of crimes “whole again.”
“But you got into trying to make her whole again,” Akbar told the panelists.

Akbar told the panelists he thought they had fallen for the charming young woman who “could be their daughter” — treating her differently from the scruffy graffiti artist they had met previously. In the end, she was ordered to attend a pretrial diversion program on a daily basis until she is admitted into residential treatment.

That really killed her high.

— Mike Aldax

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