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Courting the ones who need it

Community Court seeks to support rather than sentence
Community Court's Presiding Judge, Wayne Allen. Photo: Todd Cooper.
By Kaylee Tornay and Brittany Norton. Additional reporting by Sam Felton and Natalia Riccardi

 

Josh Beals says he doesn’t remember getting the citations that brought him to Eugene’s Community Court — because he was, as he describes it, “on a vodka spree.” What he does remember is waking up in a field, with all his belongings stolen, and a fractured skull. That, he says, was his turning point.

Ten months after the incident, as he stood for the second time before a judge, a group of lawyers and a collection of other defendants, he hoped it would be the last time he found himself on the wrong side of the law.

Beals has been through the paces of the court system several times before. He’s even been in this particular courtroom, an otherwise nondescript room on the ground floor of the Eugene Public Library. 

Reoffending was never part of his plan, but alcoholism and chronic homelessness kept him on a path that eventually led him to a court hearing ― a path that he now says he’s ready to leave behind.

“My life sucks a hell of a lot less than it did. So if you want your life to suck less, too, you should try it,” he told the other participants in the room.

Beals is one of a growing number of people — most of them homeless — cited for nonviolent minor crimes in Eugene, some for the fifth or fiftieth or even the hundredth time. Rather than spending a few days in the Lane County Jail and going back out to the streets, however, some defendants are opting to enter the Eugene Community Court program. It’s an initiative of Eugene’s Municipal Court, which typically handles these types of violations.

Eugene city and court officials decided to use this program a few years ago to support frequent offenders with their underlying needs rather than punishing them repeatedly. According to the court’s most recent report at the end of July, it had produced 40 “graduates” who, like Beals, have completed their assigned community service and worked with local service providers to deal with contributing factors to their violations.

“What we look for is, where are the people who want to make a change?” says Wayne Allen, the presiding judge and one of the core team members who launched the initiative in September 2016. “We want to integrate as opposed to exclude people.”

The court takes a two-pronged approach to changing the way the misdemeanor trial process typically works. First, participants agree to enter a guilty plea in order to get connected with resources, such as housing or mental health services. Then, instead of jail time, they perform community service, usually in the area where they were cited.

“In your traditional court process you never try to address the underlying issues,” Municipal Court Administrator Cheryl Stone says. “People might have road crew or community service or serve some jail time, but nobody ever says you’re going to get some treatment or you’re going to give back to the community in a different way.”

 

Identifying the path to effectiveness

Stone and Allen began shaping their idea for a community court in Eugene in 2013. They shared a mutual desire to find a way to deal with Eugene’s overwhelming amount of low-level, “quality of life” crime downtown.

They started by getting community feedback with help from the Center for Court Innovation, a national organization based in Manhattan that would later help fund the Eugene court. The city circulated a survey asking how community members perceived safety in a few areas of town.

According to the results, almost half of respondents indicated that they felt the area around the downtown bus station was “unsafe” or “somewhat unsafe.” 

Stone used the 900 or so responses to determine the geographic boundaries for eligibility to participate in Community Court. The boundaries included the Lane Transit District bus station, the Eugene Public Library, Lane Community College downtown campus and eventually the entire downtown police patrol area.

Stone says they realized as they collected feedback on the court that a larger area needed to be included to catch the problems ― and people ― of greatest concern.

When someone is cited with a misdemeanor in this zone, as Beals was, they are first routed to Municipal Court. But if the judge believes the defendant is a better candidate for Community Court, they’ll refer them to the program. That person then has to appear at the court at least once during its Friday sessions.

People can opt out of the Community Court, choosing to do their time or pay their fine. Those who want to participate meet with a case manager who monitors them throughout the one to three months they’re in the program.

The community court assesses participants based on a list of “criminogenic” needs — circumstances that help determine a person’s likelihood of committing a misdemeanor offense, such as an anti-social personality, a criminal history or close connections with other anti-social peers. This helps the case manager decide what length of program to assign the defendant and which service providers to connect them with. 

“The idea is that if you treat criminogenic needs,” Stone says, “then it will reduce future recidivism.” 

In Beals’ case, his past criminal history made him eligible to be in a longer-track program. But his independent motivation to get himself into treatment ― he had already connected with Outpatient Rehab before coming to community court ― helped expedite his court time.

“I knew I needed extra help,” Beals says. “I was tired of being a homeless bum holding a sign on the street.”

Community court seeks to turn things around for people like Josh Beals. Photo: Todd Cooper.

 

A nationwide effort 

The Eugene court bases its intake practices, including risk assessment, on recommendations from the Center for Court Innovation (CCI). The organization focuses on criminal justice reform and partners with state and federal bodies such as the Bureau of Justice to administer grants to community courts.

Eugene was one of 11 recipients nationwide of a $200,000 grant in 2016 from the CCI, which funds the salaries of the court’s case manager and clerk.

The CCI is a product of the first community court in the United States, which started in midtown Manhattan in 1993. It was so effective that the community court concept spread across the region, the nation and the world. In 2016 the CCI reported that there were 37 such courts across the United States.

Each varies in the scope of treatments offered, according to the participating city’s needs. Several features of the Eugene court are modeled after community courts in Brooklyn and Spokane. Like Spokane, Eugene holds Community Court once a week in its downtown library. In addition to supplying services to defendants, providers also help anyone who chooses to walk in.

But it can be difficult to gauge the effectiveness of community courts, at least by comparing them to one another. 

Brett Taylor, the liaison between the Eugene court and the CCI, says this is both the value and the difficulty of community courts. “It’s not a cookie-cutter formula,” Taylor says.

The Eugene Community Court says it hasn’t collected enough data to determine whether it is upholding a meaningful community-wide standard. 

According to Judge Allen, success isn’t measured by whether someone gives up drinking or is in permanent housing by the time they graduate from the court. Even if someone shows up drunk one week but sober the next, he says, the court may see success in their progress.

“I’m sure people would like us to be more effective,” he says. “I’d like to be more effective.”

 

Not a simple fix

Housing is one of the most critical and difficult aspects of the court’s goals. ShelterCare works with the Eugene Community Court to try to get people on a county waitlist for housing referrals.

Many people who come through Community Court don’t qualify as “chronically homeless.” To fall into that category, a person has to have been homeless for more than one year, says Melissa McCloskey, housing and services navigator for ShelterCare. 

“A lot of times we’ll get people that come in and they’ve been homeless 10 months or something, or they just became homeless a couple months ago, and we have to be like, ‘Sorry, we can’t even do an assessment with you,’” she says. “Which really sucks because a lot of times the people that have only been homeless a month just need a little boost and they’ll be right back into life mode again.” 

Eugene’s lack of affordable housing isn’t the only problem. Advocates frequently say the city has impeded homeless people by criminalizing their behavior. A 2015 ban on camping within city limits and, this past April, a ban on dogs in the downtown area were both criticized for their impacts on those without housing.

A June Eugene Weekly article (“Criminalizing Homelessness,” June 1) revealed clear discrepancies in how often homeless people are being cited: One in four people ticketed for a minor crime in 2016 was experiencing homelessness.

Advocates and homeless people alike say many of these tickets are for behavior necessary for survival, even for sleeping. White Bird Clinic’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) team is one alternative the city and Eugene Police Department rely on. EPD also implemented a Community Outreach Response Team: downtown patrol officers working with “frequent fliers” to try to divert them into treatment.

These efforts are seen as complementary to the Community Court, and housing is frequently a core issue among the people reached by any of them.

After Community Court participants do their housing assessment, they go back to their current living situation; often, that means returning to the streets. McCloskey says some people referred to a housing program couldn’t be tracked down. If participants don’t respond quickly enough, they lose their spot. 

The housing referrals are also challenging; often, McCloskey says, participants show up under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

“It sounds like it shouldn’t be that difficult, but I would say half of the people we meet with there, it is a challenge to get through it and keep them on topic,” she says. 

Longtime advocate for the homeless Majeska Seese-Greene says the Community Court “seems to be a pretty good program.” 

But, she adds, “I also do not think it addresses the criminalization issue. It hasn’t done anything to change the ordinances that basically make it illegal to be alive and breathing if you don’t have a place to stay overnight in Eugene.”

For now, the Eugene Community Court is still young, but the grant is already halfway spent. Staff members are counting on the support of the Eugene City Council to secure enough funding to continue once the grant expires next year. 

Stone and Allen both say they are confident the council will at least meet the current funding level. City Councilor Emily Semple of Ward 1, where the Community Court is located, confirmed that the court is on the council’s budget radar.

“I’m sure that a motion will be made to continue it because I would make it,” she says. “$100,000 or $200,000 is not a small amount, but for the benefits we reap, it’s a bargain.”

Semple says the council has not looked at any data on the court yet but expects to when budget discussions begin again.

 The court, meanwhile, is hoping to expand. They want more stories like Beals’ ― they say even if you come back twice, as long as you get help, the community benefits.

Beals, for his part, now has a job to get to instead of jail time to serve. His criminal record is three violations cleaner than it might have been, he’s working towards permanent housing and he’s also attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every week.

“Once I’m done with court, I’m done with court,” Beals says.

This story was developed as part of the Catalyst Journalism Project at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Catalyst brings together investigative reporting and solutions journalism to spark action and response to Oregon’s most perplexing issues. To learn more visit journalism.uoregon.edu/catalyst or follow the project on Twitter @UO_catalyst.

 

 

Center for Court Innovation

The Eugene Community Court is shaped by a growing history of community courts, the first of which began in Manhattan. The Manhattan Community Court was intended to help reduce recidivism and crime around Times Square by helping chronic offenders deal with the more fundamental factors contributing to their offending. It experienced unprecedented success, measured in several factors, including recidivism rates and costs. Current Center for Court Innovation (CCI) research estimates that the court saves the city $1.2 million annually and reduces jail time by 8 percent and sentences served 17 percent compared to the criminal court.

After the Manhattan court proved its effectiveness, the city of New York and the New York State Court System established the CCI, and the community court concept spread across the region. Two of the earliest were the Red Hook Community Court in Brooklyn and the Part Two Court in Newark, both of which have reduced recidivism by double digits, Since then, jurisdictions around the world have taken increasing notice; community courts have also popped up in Australia and Africa, for example.

After being approved for the grant, Stone and the rest of the core Eugene team visited Brooklyn’s Red Hook and Spokane’s community courts, which have both amassed evidence of their success in reducing recidivism and overall crime in their target areas. Red Hook was found to have reduced recidivism by 10 percent among adults and 20 percent among juveniles, and Spokane has helped 143 people into housing since 2013.

To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation go to courtinnovation.org/project/midtown-community-court.