Are Community Courts, as proposed by District Attorney George Gascón, a great way to quickly resolve nonviolent crime cases without clogging up the Hall of Justice?
Or are they merely a way for prosecutors to railroad suspects?
That was a question parsed by Gascón and San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi during an hour-long panel discussion in which they -- oddly enough -- saw eye-to-eye on some issues, including the damage caused by the SFPD crime lab scandal, and by the DA's concealment of records about police officers who testify in jury trials.
Adachi conceded that Gascón reacted reasonably well to the crises.
But he questioned the wisdom of turning over the business of the courts
to trained neighborhood volunteers.
something to be said for village elders getting together and saying,
'You stole that apple, and you shouldn't have," Gascón said.
Gascón's plan involves putting deputy district attorneys into police
stations to reroute minor cases to a trained panel of citizen
Adachi cautioned that defendants must be allowed to reject the less formal court's version of justice and request a shot at traditional court.
As he winds up his campaign for DA this fall, Gascón has said he'd like to move 20 percent of nonviolent, minor crime cases to community panels. This would allow prosecutors to focus on more serious cases while teaching scofflaws a lesson, thanks to the relative swiftness of community hearings.
Also, prosecution in neighborhood courts would cost a quarter of the $1,200 required to resolve an ordinary criminal case, Gascón said. And by the time a suspect receives some sort of punishment -- which can take up to a year -- and the crime and its consequences are no longer linked in a perpetrator's mind.
"When punishment is so far removed, it doesn't serve as a deterrent," Gascón said.
Adachi, for his part, brought up the fact that San Francisco has long had some kind of version of community courts, and that both prosecutors and defenders have often considered them a joke. Problems have included a lack of inducement for defendants to attend neighborhood court sessions, resulting in calendars full of no-shows.
On the flip side, rushing suspects through an informal justice process before an attorney has helped them understand their options can mean railroading them, Adachi said.
Update: 4/7/11, 4:33 p.m.
David Onek, Gascon's opponent in this fall's election to chose a San Francisco district attorney, writes with his views of Gascon's community courts proposal:
Getting the community more involved in public safety is a great idea.
While they are not a cure all, and we need to be skeptical of big political promises during an election year, community based courts can be a positive way to engage the community and make them stronger partners with police and prosecutors.
I think Jeff is absolutely correct that to be sustainable the courts must be vigilant about protecting the rights of the accused. And I would add, that to be more than an election year ploy, the courts need to be designed in collaboration with community partners and other partners in public safety, including the Public Defender's office.
But we should work together to form a model of community based justice that makes sense for San Francisco.