Thursday, April 18, 2002
City Council Moves Forward on Creation of Downtown Community Court
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A proposed Community Court to deal with quality-of-life crimes in the downtown area got a major boost yesterday as the City Council accepted a start-up grant of nearly $1 million and set up a task force of legal and neighborhood representatives to shape the program.
Modeled on a Van Nuys court rapidly approaching its first anniversary, the downtown Community Court is meant to address misdemeanor offenses such as graffiti, public drinking and vandalism.
Although part of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the Community Court would draw heavily upon the resources and assistance of social service providers and neighborhood leaders in an effort to channel the offenders into mental health, substance abuse, job training or other programs to assure that they do not become part of a permanent nuisance crime landscape.
"This court will be able to help members of the community that need help," Councilman Tom LaBonge said of the proposed downtown court.
The council action calls for representatives from the city attorney, the public defender, the Police Department, the Sheriff's Department, the county Mental Health Department, the RAND Corporation, business groups and the Superior Court to join in a task force to outline how the court should operate.
Bryan Borys, director of organizational development and education for the Superior Court, said the court may or may not end up looking like the one in Van Nuys.
"Every community court is different because every community is different," Borys said.
Downtown skid row and Van Nuys were both identified in 1998 as prime locations for pilot community court programs because of the prevalence of nuisance crimes and the perceived impact on businesses and residents. Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski and then-Councilman Mike Feuer spearheaded the drive to launch the courts based on a highly touted court that helped sweep quality-of-life crimes out of central Manhattan.
The Van Nuys court opened in May 2001. Opinions differ as to its effectiveness. Some police officers interviewed by the MetNews have said they saw little difference in the number of defendants moving through the "revolving door" that takes them from the street, to jail, to court, to social service programs, and back to the street.
But Paulette Taormina, who serves as the Van Nuys courts' resource coordinator, said members of a community panel who track the court's progress have signaled their satisfaction by continuing to come to community meetings.
"People are coming and they are expanding the panel," Taormina said. "They have been impressed with enough with the defendants' stories that they have invited [past defendants] to be part of the panel as well."
Volunteer Center Executive Director Jim Leahy said police officers also have begun to see improvement, and "they are showing a responsiveness to the needs and the desires of the community to improve their quality of life."
Community courts are but one component of a multi-faceted approach to community outreach that Borys acknowledged can appear somewhat piecemeal. There is a Homeless Court operating downtown, and there will soon be a similar court in East Hollywood with a focus somewhere between that of the Homeless Court and the Van Nuys Community Court.
The Superior Court has expanded its Drug Courts in the wake of Proposition 36, which mandates treatment programs for first-time offenders. There are also specialized Domestic Violence Courts around the county.
Borys said the court has recently received an $80,000 grant and is "on the verge" of hiring a an outside evaluator to coordinate the various boutique court programs and look for efficiencies and redundancies.
Meanwhile, LaBonge yesterday introduced a council motion to study creation of a Housing Court system to handle landlord-tenant and building code violations, modeled on similar court systems in place in Boston, Pittsburgh and New York.
The motion was referred to both the Audits & Governmental Efficiency and the Housing & Community Development Committees.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company