Taking the weight off the courts
District Attorney George Gascon instituted the San Francisco Neighborhood Courts as a low-cost alternative to the heavily over-burdened criminal court system for small crimes, such as prostitution and graffiti.
Assistant D.A. Rebecca Prozan said that the backlog in criminal court has gotten so bad that routine matters take an inordinately long time to be resolved.
“[A murder case that] used to take six months, now takes up to three years,” she said. “Research shows that quick resolution of criminal incidents reduces the rate of recidivism.”
The program works by incorporating local members of the neighborhood into the process of administering justice; a prosecutor is assigned to a local police station and assists members from the local community, who sit on a panel that tries people accused of low-level crimes.
A typical minor crime case usually costs around $1,500 to prosecute, but under the neighborhood courts program that cost has been reduced to $300.
The defendant who is accused of a low-level crime, such as a misdemeanor or infraction, is given the choice of entering themselves into the neighborhood courts or having their case prosecuted through the central criminal courts, a lengthy process that carries the possibility of harsher punishments than those generally offered by the neighborhood courts.
The defendant’s record is then reviewed to see if they qualify for community court: the crime they are accused of cannot be violent in nature and they must be first-time offenders.
If the person is found guilty, they are usually given light punishments, like 100 hours of community service cleaning up graffiti or volunteering for the neighborhood, and compelled to attend management courses or treatment for substance abuse. They can also be expected to pay into a restitution fund for local community cleanup projects.
Since the program started, 10 to 15 cases have been dealt with each week in the Mission and Bayview districts, and the number of adjudicators has tripled.
Gaynoranne Siataga, 34, is one of the panelists for the Mission District’s neighborhood court, and has lived in San Francisco all her life. “I used to be a gang banger for a long time,” she said.
She wanted to get out of gang life and got involved in doing community work, which eventually lead to her involvement with the Neighborhood Courts Program. She feels like the program brings the Mission together.
“Because we are from the community, it doesn’t intimidate [the defendants] so much,” she said. “We’re ordinary people.”
The money to cover the court costs of the Neighborhood Courts program come from the San Francisco District Attorney (SFDA) general fund, and the Dispute Resolution Programs Act (DRPA).
“Its a state act that allows counties to use a portion of the fee collection in civil lawsuit filings to fund alternative dispute resolution programs,” Prozan said.
Gascon plans to expand the program to Northern and Park police stations, and to the entire city within the next 12 months.
The program is always looking for more adjudicators. If you are interested, email Jackson.GEE@SFgov.or, or call (415) 575-6328.