Dec. 10 2014 09:23 AM

New program hopes to ease pressure on the system and the offenders

Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

Things move fast at misdemeanor arraignment, held in Dept. 1 on the first floor of the downtown San Diego courthouse, where it's not unusual for the judge to hear 100 cases in one day. Case files move through an assembly-line process from prosecutor to defense attorney to clerk to judge and, amid the organized chaos, sometimes back again. With recent court budget cuts, this was a system already in need of a release valve; then came last month's passage of Prop. 47, the sentencing-reform bill that reduced certain drug and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

In early November, the San Diego City Attorney's office launched a new program called Community Court. A pilot project for now, it offers certain misdemeanor offenders the chance to have their cases dismissed if they complete 16 hours of community service within 60 days and pay an administrative fee of $120. Folks who can't pay can have the fee waived in exchange for additional service hours.

While it's not unusual to require a misdemeanant to perform community service, it's the case dismissal that's key. And, what normally would have required at least two court appearances—more if someone's sentenced to probation—now requires only one.

"If you complete everything," Chief Deputy City Attorney Jamie Ledezma says, "we'll take it off calendar for you. So, it's adding some certainty to the process where now it's a lot of court appearances."

Since the program started, 52 people have been offered the chance to participate in Community Court; 31 have accepted. Only low-level offenders—those who commit crimes like petty theft, illegal lodging and vandalism—are eligible. Ineligible offenses include DUI, domestic violence, sexual offenses, child and elder abuse and cases eligible for other diversion programs.

Ledezma says the program has started slowly to avoid overwhelming the two services providers: Alpha Project, which runs the city's winter homeless shelter and day center, and Urban Corps. Offenders between 18 and 25 will be assigned to the latter while everyone else will work with Alpha Project. As the program grows, the goal is to add additional organizations. But, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith says, the first two providers were selected with a big-picture goal of intervention in mind.

"The court system isn't geared towards helping people," says Goldsmith, who was a judge before being elected City Attorney in 2008. He recalls looking at case files and pinpointing where a defendant's life had taken a wrong turn.

"We have these great figures, you know—90-percent conviction rate," he says. "What happens after the conviction? And why is it I've seen thousands of probation reports before I'm sentencing someone who's a felon? Why do I always see a misdemeanor stage where nothing happened? And that was 10 years ago. Today it must be a lot worse."

He envisions Urban Corps providing early intervention for troubled young adults and Alpha Project hooking up homeless offenders with services.

But for Community Court offenders who don't follow through, consequences are steep. Agree to the program and you have to plead guilty at your first court appearance—meaning you've got a conviction on your record until you pays the $120 and complete the service. If you fail to do so within 60 days, the provider can allow for a 30-day extension. If you still fail to complete the 16 hours, you'll be sentenced to either two days in jail and three years probation or five days with no probation.

"Misdemeanors don't [usually] go to jail," Goldsmith says, "but this is an exception. We're offering you the carrot, but if you don't do it, you are going to be put in custody…. There are consequences if you do not do what you say you're going to do."

At misdemeanor arraignment last Wednesday, nine cases of the more than five-dozen on the calendar were eligible for community court. Of the nine, five defendants accepted the offer. Of the other four, two defendants failed to appear, one pleaded not guilty and one case was continued to a later date. None of the defendants knew ahead of time that they'd be offered Community Court.

Four of the five who accepted were college freshmen who'd been caught stealing a street sign. For them, getting their records expunged was a pretty big deal. As one put it: "To have a petty theft on your record, it's a truth issue with employers."

Mel Epley, who supervises misdemeanor arraignment for the Public Defender's office, says it's unlikely the boys would have ended up with a petty theft charge— they'd likely have been fined, assigned to community service and had the charge reduced to disturbing the peace.

"The standard would have still gotten them a misdemeanor conviction," Epley says. "It wouldn't have been a theft offense, but it's still a misdemeanor conviction. Even though most people don't get denied work or things like that because of a disturbing-the-peace charge, to have a clean record is something that's very beneficial."

Community Court offenders are required to register with their assigned service provider within five days. Sam Lopez, community service corps manager at Urban Corps, says all four students registered immediately, bringing Urban Corps' total number of Community Court enrollees up to eight as of Dec. 8. That same day, one of the students had been assigned to sort recyclables from Sunday's Chargers game. Other assignments might include graffiti removal, Qualcomm Stadium cleanup, brush management or administrative work, Lopez says.

The information Lopez gets from the court is limited. It includes the penal-code violation, but he doesn't look it up. He leaves it up to the person to decide whether to share that information. He asks Community Court participants to show up at 7 a.m.—half an hour before they receive their assignment—for two reasons: He wants to make sure that the person he registered is the same person who shows up for work, and it gives him some time to see if he's dealing with someone who might need additional help.

Lopez was once one of those kids. At 18, he moved to San Diego from Imperial Valley and took a job with the California Conservation Corps to keep himself out of trouble.

"If we get those young adults who don't have a high-school diploma and they're not a college grad, we're using this as a recruitment pool so we can say, ‘Hey, look, you've done your community service. You can get your high-school diploma here with us. You can learn a few skills that will help you find better employment.'" 

Over at Alpha Project, as of Dec. 8, six people who'd been referred from Community Court have registered, says Chief Operating Officer Amy Gonyeau. None of them has been homeless, she says, "but it just started; we're just getting our referrals now."

Gonyeau says enrollees are assigned to the city's winter shelter, the Neil Good Day Center or to do community cleanup. She says they've opted to make the program flexible: a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there.

Should someone in need of homelessness services show up, "of course we'd engage with them," she says.

While Epley says there's a lot to like about Community Court, he's not sure it's going to be the safety net that Goldsmith envisions.

"The ones who aren't going to succeed are the ones who don't succeed in our system already," he says. "They don't have the capacity to. Either they don't care enough to get the volunteer work done or they just can't do it because they have no stability."

With the consequence of jail time, it could be setting some folks up for failure. For that reason, Epley has told his attorneys to do a quick assessment, and if they feel the person's not going to follow through with the program requirements, at least use the Community Court offer to secure a sentence that's aligned with the program's philosophy. The same could apply to someone who's not offered Community Court but who would benefit from a similar deal.

"The whole premise that we're trying to give back to the community and help people get on with their lives instead of setting them up for being perpetual repeat offenders in our court system," he says.

Lopez says that of the eight people he's registered, he's concerned that two might not complete their 16 hours. One, who was arrested for stealing cheese from Vons and trying to resell it at the border, registered but hasn't shown up to work. Another showed up, gave the supervisor a hard time and hasn't been back.

"But I'm willing to work with him," Lopez says. "We're not going to boot him out just yet."

The guy's mom called Lopez to say the young man was going to come in this week.

"When he comes in, he's going to work with me. I'm going to have him close by…. He's got some issues."

And what's Lopez going to do if the cheese thief doesn't show up? The young man was remorseful but concerned about being able to pay the $120 fee. Lopez told him not to worry—they'd work it out.

"I've tracked every note, every call I've made to his house, the times I've spoken to him, the times I've left him messages.

"I'm not going to drive down there and pick him up," he says. It's ultimately about accepting responsibility.

"We want them to have a good experience while they're here, as well, not just, Oh man, I'm being punished. I don't want them to feel that way when they come in and register. I try to let them know, ‘Hey, it's not OK what you did, but what you're going to do is going to be OK. You're going to learn from your mistakes."

Email or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.

An earlier version of this story listed Sam Lopez's title as director of operations at Urban Corps. It's actually community service corps manager. We apologize for the error.  


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