Richmond aiming to implement community court system before year’s end

Contra Costa Superior Court to restore some hours and services

Richmond is working to implement a community court system by year’s end to handle low-level misdemeanor cases and infractions, hoping the system will be a cost-effective way to more wholly resolve neighborhood conflicts.

On Tuesday, City Council approved sending a letter to the Contra Costa County Civil Grand Jury stating the city’s intention to implement “a Community Court model” before the end of 2015. The letter was in response to a recommendation by the grand jury to implement such a program in Richmond.

Few other details were immediately available about Richmond’s plans.

In a community court system, rather than clogging up county courtrooms with minor cases, they are handled at the neighborhood level, according to the system’s proponents. Instead of the accused facing a judge, they stand before trained hearing officers in hearings monitored by local law enforcement. Unlike the court system, the victim is often consulted in cases. In some cases, the accused may face their victims at hearings in order to take part in a conflict resolution process. The aim is that victims are both heard and made whole.

People accused of low-level crimes are said to have incentive to take part, as they can avoid formal prosecutions that could potentially stain their record.

Cities using the system have also said community courts come at minimal cost, often paying for themselves through the fees and community service hours levied against offenders.

Richmond has employed a community court system in the past, after the concept was born in San Francisco in 1972 and was extended to Contra Costa County, but the city no longer participates in that program, according to the county’s grand jury report.

Over the last three years, Concord, Pittsburg and San Ramon have all implemented community courts via a division of the nonprofit California Community Dispute Services (CCDS). Walnut Creek also uses a division of CCDS.

In Concord, which has had the system for three years, those deemed eligible for community court are sent a letter asking if they want to participate, according to the civil grand jury report. Hearings are held twice monthly and each session typically handles between seven and 10 cases. The cases deal with petty theft, public intoxication, minor hit-and-run accidents and other small crimes.

Of those in Concord who received a letter to attend community court, 60-percent responded, and of them 98-percent showed up and 95-percent fulfilled their orders of fines, community service hours, or other penalties, according to the grand jury report.

Last year, Concord received $28,529 in fees from community court and 205 hours of community service hours. The city reinvests the money in the program.

In Pittsburg, which implemented a community court last year, 30 of the first 100 people to receive letters participated and paid $7,000 in fees, the report said.

San Ramon began its community court system in April.

San Francisco’s renowned system now operates through the city’s district attorney’s office. Courts are run by volunteer hearing officers who are often from the very district where the offenses occurred. A member of the DA’s office and another from the police department monitor hearings. Volunteer hearing officers often discuss what reasonable punishments there should be with offenders and victims, but ultimately make the final call. In a shoplifting case, for example, the court might order the offender to write an apology letter to the merchant, complete community service hours and possibly even take a course on the impacts of shoplifting on businesses and the economy.

Read more about San Francisco’s neighborhood court system here.