Monday, November 26, 2001
Van Nuys Community Court Program Takes a Crack at Reducing Quality-of-Life Crimes
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Get arrested 10 times, get a free T-shirt.
It may not be an official motto, but Los Angeles Police Department officers who patrol the Van Nuys Civic Center believed they should do something for their “regular customers.”
To the two transients who received the dubious honor, the shirts, which featured caricatures of the four officers and a picture of a 40 ounce bottle of Magnum malt liquor booked into evidence, are a source of pride.
To other transients in the area who tried to buy the shirts from their owners but failed, the shirts are a subject of envy.
But to the officers who handed out the shirts, they are a sign that they have regular customers.
And regular customers is exactly the thing they are trying to get rid of inside the Los Angles Superior Court’s Community Court catchment area.
Housed in Division 101 of the Van Nuys Criminal Court Building, Community Court is a place where the revolving door of the criminal justice system is supposed to come to a grinding halt and help those people caught in the seemingly never-ending cycle of empty 40s and sporadic nights in the county jail before returning to the streets.
Since the program began May 1, 47 people have accounted for almost 40 percent of the citations made in the Community Court area.
Drinking in public, loitering, and graffiti are the kind of things that drive neighbors crazy and create eyesores in a neighborhood. It is exactly these and other low level misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes the pilot project is designed to get rid of in the area.
Four bicycle officers patrol the Community Court area during the day, five days a week. Officers Kerry Suprenant, Rob Gasior, Ralph Emard, and Rob Powers average a little over two arrests a day and more than 400 arrests have been referred to Community Court by the LAPD since the start of the program.
Instead of jail time, Community Court defendants are given a second chance by being matched up with social service programs to treat what caused them to commit their crime. Resource Coordinator Paulette Taromina pairs alcoholics with Alcoholics Anonymous and petty theft defendants with job training. The program also benefits the community by having the neighborhood cleaned up by the same defendants who painted graffiti on their walls or loitered on their sidewalks.
Deputy Public Defender Lisa Brackelmanns and Deputy City Attorney Kenny Tso work together to find an appropriate sentence that would benefit both the defendant and the community and get the defendant out of the criminal justice system.
When and if all social service and community service requirements are completed, the criminal charges are dropped. Not even the arrest appears on the defendant’s record.
“I think this court is a safety net for those people who do fall through the cracks,” Taromina says. “These are everyday people who happen to do something stupid.”
A community advisory panel, made up of neighborhood residents and representatives from community-based organizations, meets regularly to identify neighborhood trouble spots and propose places where defendants could put their community service hours to good use.
“We’re bridging the gap between the community and the justice system,” Taromina says. “They are able to give back to the community and the community is able to give them a helping hand.”
To be eligible for the Van Nuys program, the crime must have been committed within the Community Court catchment area, a “box” bordered by Sepulveda Boulevard, Woodman Avenue, and Vanowen and Oxnard streets. Even though all low-level misdemeanor crimes committed in the box are eligible, participation in the program is optional and defendants can opt for a more traditional disposition such as paying the fine or proceeding to trial, Bracklemanns says.
“As a defense attorney, it’s not my job to have the program be a success,” Brackelmanns says. “I make sure my client gets the best legal representation available.”
And she says she isn’t going to let the program change the way she does her job.
“The problem is you never want to lose sight of being a lawyer,” Brackelmanns says. “I’m not going to be a social worker.”
But Brackelmanns says she wants to see the program succeed.
“If you help people get a job, they are less likely to steal,” she says.
The Van Nuys pilot project is based on the Midtown Community Court located in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan, which opened its doors in 1993. The program combines punishment in the form of community service and help in the form of on-site drug treatment, job training and counseling. More than a dozen community courts based on the Manhattan model have sprung up across the nation in the last few years and at least a dozen more are planned, according to the New York-based Center for Court Innovation.
The pilot project arrived in Van Nuys through the work of then-Councilman Mike Feuer, who represented the Van Nuys area, and U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes downtown Los Angeles. A second Community Court is expected to open for the downtown skid row area in a year, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo says.
“Very few people who come to court, civil or criminal, want to be here,” Superior Court Northwest District Supervising Judge Paul Gutman says. “You always have someone who walks out of the courtroom unhappy. With Community Court, everyone wins.
“It is something we can point to with pride,” he says.
But Feuer, the program’s champion, left the City Council to take a chance on running for city attorney instead—and was narrowly defeated by Delgadillo in the June runoff, leaving the Van Nuys program without his guiding hand.
For now the court operates without additional money, using funds already in the court budget and the non-profit Volunteer Center of Los Angeles is providing the resource coordinator position free of charge. The program did receive a $1 million Department of Justice grant, which will be split between the Van Nuys and downtown courts and that money is expected to come in the next couple months, court spokesperson Kyle Christopherson says.
The absence of Feuer and a complete lack of funding creates substantial hurdles for the fledgling program, which already has to deal with defendants who battle more than just the possibility of a criminal record if they fail to comply with court sanctions. Many of them deal with alcohol and drug problems, and mental illness, while trying to survive on the streets.
The court also went through a significant change in leadership just two months after it began when its original commissioner, Mitchell Block, was transferred to Proposition 36 and Drug Court. Gutman assigned a then unwilling Commissioner Martin Wegman to fill the post in July.
“I drafted him,” Gutman says.
A self-described cynic, Wegman says at first he didn’t believe the program would work, but several successful program graduates have since changed his mind.
“You’re not going to change the world with this crap,” Wegman says. “But I know I’ve saved three or four lives doing this and I know I’ve at least impacted a few more than that.”
“The best part is seeing someone change,” he says. “That’s the only reason why I show up to work.”
Court officials say the key to success in the program is catching defendants at that exact moment when they want to change their lives and they just need some help from the court.
“We have to catch these people at the best possible moment,” Wegman says. “Once you get into Felonyland, you either warehouse people or put them on probation and hope they rehabilitate themselves.”
The court caught Darryl Fields before he made it that far.
“I was just tired of being tired,” Fields says. “It was time for me to change my life.”
Fields, a 41-year-old Baltimore native who lived on the streets of Van Nuys for five years, says he would get picked up by the police for open container warrants, spend the night in jail, be credited for time served and he would be right back out on the streets until they picked him up again.
When he finally made it to the Community Court courtroom in June, Fields decided he was ready to enter into a long-term live-in alcohol treatment program that would require several AA meetings a day and other life skill classes to prepare him for life off the street. When he returned for his progress report on Halloween, not even Brackelmanns, his own lawyer, recognized him.
“If this program wasn’t here, I’d probably be doing the same thing,” Fields says. “I gave it a shot and I made it.”
Fields is now living in transitional housing and looking for work.
But Tso, the deputy city attorney, says one of the biggest problems with the court is people have to be willing to change when they walk through the courtroom door—and they don’t always make it through the door.
“If defendants want to help themselves, then it’s really worth it,” Tso says. “The problem is the people who don’t show up, then it doesn’t work.”
Offenders are cited to appear in court the next court day, a change from the usual three-week lag time in traditional courts.
But cutting the wait time down hasn’t helped bring in more defendants into court, LAPD Detective Craig Rhudy, who organizes the department’s involvement with the program, says.
“We’ve got a lousy return rate,” Rhudy says.
About half of all people cited for misdemeanors in the Community Court district do not show up to court, he says.
“We thought that by citing them to court the very next day they would be more likely to show up, but because of their offenses that is not happening,” Rhudy says.
With drinking in public offenses making up nearly 70 percent of the citations, Rhudy says many defendants have serious alcohol problems that keep them from appearing in court.
“They’re chronic drinkers,” Officer Rob Powers says. “They don’t even remember you gave them a ticket.”
To curb a low return rate and increase effectiveness of the program, the department changed the way it handles people who are repeatedly cited, but fail to appear in court.
“It’s like a credit card,” Powers says of the warrants collected by some offenders. “It just keeps adding up.”
As of Nov. 1, repeat offenders go directly jail while they wait to be arraigned, a change officers say is causing the court to take some action on the numerous citations.
“It took a while for us to see the court was actually serious about some of our frequent fliers,” Powers says.
The patrol’s five biggest public drinking offenders have all landed extended stints in jail, ranging from a couple of months to a year for an offender who was already on probation.
James Cecena, also known as Chief, is one of the program’s “regular customers,” a chronic alcoholic who makes his home on the streets inside the Community Court district.
With nine public drinking citations since the program began, Cecena asked for jail time when he was brought to court rather than going through a prescribed alcohol treatment program knowing he wouldn’t complete it.
After his release from the Twin Towers jail downtown, Cecena walked back to Van Nuys – and right back to the Community Court district.
“He knows he’s not going to change,” Powers says. “He would rather go to jail.”
Delgadillo, whose office prosecutes Community Court defendants, admits the program is not a quick fix that is going to cure the area’s problems. He says the program is a good start.
“It’s part of our approach to take care of the lower level crimes and the bigger crimes will go away,” Delgadillo says.
“This is not a panacea,” he says. “This is not a silver bullet. This is another opportunity to impact in a positive way on our neighborhoods.”
Department officials agree that stopping the low-level misdemeanors can stop more serious crimes that stem from the smaller crimes and the increased police presence is discouraging other crimes from being committed, but they aren’t sure how much.
“It has changed the complexion of the neighborhood,” Rhudy says. “You’re not likely to see people standing around drinking in a commercial area anymore.”
But those changes may only be skin deep and temporary, he says.
Repeat offenders who receive numerous citations, fail to appear in court, and even fail to comply with court sanctions are not automatically excluded from further participation in the program, a fact which law enforcement officials say is not forcing offenders to be accountable for their offenses.
“I’d like to say it really works well,” Rhudy says. “But because of failure to appears and people with multiple arrests, it’s probably not going to make a big impact over time.”
“I don’t see that we’re doing anything different,” Rhudy says. “I don’t think we’re serving the public by allowing these people to fail to comply with what they agreed to.”
The program may also just be shifting the problem to other neighborhoods outside the catchment area as people migrate from the area to avoid citation, Officer Ralph Emard says.
“I think the biggest problem with Community Court is that we’ve pushed the problem outside of the box,” Emard says. “They know that if they go outside the box they can drink in public or do whatever. Once they go outside the box we can’t do anything about it because they aren’t Community Court anymore.”
“We’d love to see [the catchment area] expanded so there is no safe haven for them,” he says.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company