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Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.
(Photo: tlegend/Shutterstock)

(Photo: tlegend/Shutterstock)

In the summer of 1993, the New York Times reported on what was, at the time, the start of a three-year experiment in local justice—the opening of the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan. The first of its kind, the court was established to ease the backlog of cases in the city’s court system by addressing minor, “quality of life” offenses, especially in and around Times Square.

The idea was that people arrested for non-violent crimes like prostitution, selling stuff on the street without a permit, graffiti, and drug possession could be processed through the community court quickly, and get access to social services right there, if they needed them—much like in the Miami drug court model. Reducing the time between arrest and court appearance would make it more likely that they would show up and get their cases resolved. If they pleaded guilty, they could often do their “time” in the form of community service and clean-up projects that would be located in the very same neighborhoods where they had committed their crimes.

Those people who were arrested for more serious crimes, or for any crimes outside of the specific geographic boundaries of the community court’s purview, would still be sent through the traditional court system downtown. The city, meanwhile, would save money by reducing both pre-trial detention time, and post-trial prison time.

Twenty years later, the Midtown Community Court heard over 21,000 cases in 2013, saves the city an average of $1.2 million a year, and there are now more than 30 community courts following its example across the country.

The Times editorial board approved, writing, “The new court will give the city another shot at reclaiming its streets and its people.” (Two women who had just been arrested for prostitution and sentenced by the then-new court to stuff envelopes as community service were less enthusiastic about it, however, asking a reporter, "Making whores work? I got 49 convictions! You think stuffing envelopes for a few days is going to stop me?")

Twenty years later, the Midtown Community Court heard over 21,000 cases in 2013, saves the city an average of $1.2 million a year, and there are now more than 30 community courts following its example across the country. In 2011, the Center for Court Innovation collected research literature about the courts’ relative success, and found much to celebrate. In Minneapolis, the community justice project found an “increased community service compliance rate” and support from the public for increased taxes to fund the continuation of the program. In Philadelphia, a majority of the people who went through the court after alcohol- or sex-work-related arrests said that it had an impact on their behavior and that they were treated fairly there.

But the Center for Court Innovation admits the difficulty in drawing broader conclusions about overall impact, writing, in the end of its review: “although community court stakeholders often cite recidivism reduction and solving underlying offender problems as important community court goals, only three studies to date ... have assessed their impacts on this front, with all three reporting mixed results.”

As important as the goals of crime-reduction and re-arrest-reduction are, causation is very difficult to measure. How can researchers know that crime didn’t go down in the community-court area because of improved economic development over time? If people aren’t being arrested again and again within the community-court area, does that mean that they’ve been reformed? Or are they simply being arrested for the same crime somewhere else?

A new study, just out this month by the RAND Corporation, used a new method to evaluate the success of the Community Justice Center in San Francisco—a method that its authors say allow them to compare “apples to apples.” Where previous studies typically compared community court participants with those arrestees who went through traditional court processing elsewhere, this new study looked at all the arrestees who were (geographically and categorically) eligible to go through the community court system—even if, for whatever reason, they had been sent to the traditional court instead. They also compared arrests within the “catchment area” before the community court program launched with similar arrests made in the same area after it launched.

“When you can’t conduct a gold-standard randomized controlled study, you are left with inferior research designs and they all have tradeoffs,” said Beau Kilmer, a RAND senior policy researcher and a co-author of the report. “We knew that this approach would likely yield conservative results, but given our concerns about ‘selection effects’ we thought it was the most appropriate method for the analysis given the available data.”

So it was significant that, even with this more “conservative” measurement, the researchers still found that the community court program did in fact reduce re-arrests. The program, which opened in the Tenderloin district in 2009, had heard about 10,000 cases by the end of 2013. Kilmer and his co-author Jesse Sussell found that “those arrested for an eligible offense in the Community Justice Center catchment area after it opened were 8.9 percent to 10.3 percent less likely to be rearrested within one year.”

There is still one big question left unanswered, though: Why? The authors suggested that the easy access to social services at the time of arrest, like job training and addiction treatment, could have made the difference. Or it could have been the speediness with which cases were resolved: “arrestees cited to the traditional system typically were ordered to report to the court more than a month after citation was issued. Arrestees cited to the Community Justice Center often had to report to the court within seven business days.” So that is something that needs to be studied further, the authors agree. The CJC, Kilmer says, isn’t just a typical court; it’s a “multi-faceted intervention.”