by Contra Costa County Supervisor, Candace Anderson
How do we save costs and create a more effective justice system? Contra Costa County’s District Attorney’s Office and several local police agencies have begun a Community Courts program. The program provides a person who has been arrested or cited by the police for a low level crime, the opportunity to quickly resolve their matters without incurring a criminal “conviction.”
With the approval of the District Attorney’s Office, a police agency refers individuals with low level infraction or misdemeanor offenses to the program. Invitations to participate in the Community Court are then sent to eligible offenders (typically first-time offenders). If they decide to participate, the person is scheduled to appear at a hearing administered by Community Court Services, a private entity comprised of experienced, licensed attorneys who have been trained in the community court model. These lawyers are independent hearing officers and unaffiliated with the District Attorney’s Office or law enforcement.
The offender has an opportunity to present his or her recitation of facts after hearing a summary of the offenses. At the conclusion, the hearing officer issues “directives” which can include restitution to victims, paying a fine, participating in community service, and/or attending other programs related to the offender’s specific issue, with completion required by a certain date.
If the offender successfully completes the directives, the case will be deemed satisfactorily closed, with no subsequent request for prosecutorial review. The hearings are intended to encourage candor and accountability and because these are not “judicial proceedings,” there are no court reporters or attorneys present.
Community Court is a voluntary process, and at every step of the way, eligible offenders are advised that the charges for which they were arrested may be resolved either in Community Court or, should the offender not wish to participate, via the traditional criminal justice process where the case will be reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office.
Offenders who choose to participate in Community Court pay an administrative fee to the hearing officers separate and apart from any fines that may later be established. Law enforcement also has a liaison or representative present during the hearings to track the progress and results of the referrals.
By using this model, justice is quickly restored to victims individually and within the larger community. There are currently four cities in Contra Costa County that have implemented the use of Community Courts with the District Attorney’s Office oversight: Walnut Creek, Concord, Pittsburg, and San Ramon. A proposed Community Court in the Lamorinda area (Lafayette-Moraga-Orinda) is in the works for the summer. All of the participating cities exclude felony offenses or those cases involving violence, weapons, driving under the influence, domestic violence, child abuse, or sexual assault
Community Court is an alternative to the traditional method of filing criminal cases by the District Attorney’s Office. Early accountability, plus the opportunity for other resources or social services that could be an underlying cause for poor decision-making, is an incentive for eligible offenders to participate in this system. Local courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement agencies are able to use their limited resources for those defendants who belong in the traditional criminal justice system. Community Courts encourage early resolution, address the concerns of victims and witnesses, and hold offenders accountable to their communities -- a “win-win” for Contra Costa County.
My office is here to serve the residents of Contra Costa County District 2, which includes San Ramon, Danville, Alamo, Walnut Creek, Saranap, Parkmead, Lafayette, Moraga, Canyon and Orinda. Please don't hesitate to contact us if we can provide you with additional information on this topic or on other County issues. I can be reached at [email protected] or 925-957-8860
A special thanks to Nancy Georgiou of the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office for her contributions to this article.