There are miracles that occur daily at the criminal courthouse on Bryant Street. Those of us in the legal community who focus on treatment for defendants whose crime was committed due to drug and alcohol addiction or mental illness often witness the transformation of suffering into personal renewal, family unity and community integration. Not too bad for a day’s work if you spend any time at the Hall of Justice.
The Superior Court has been doing this work for well over ten years beginning with our Adult Drug Court which quickly inspired the development of our Juvenile Court and Alternative School program and our award winning Behavioral Health Court (BHC) for mentally ill offenders. We were tired of seeing the same individuals revolve through the same doorway so we joined the movement of problem-solving courts which accounts for nearly 1700 such programs nationwide.
We’re compassionate and knowledgeable about relapse and recovery and we can sometimes quote passages from the DSM-IV manual that defines types of mental illness. But don’t mistake sensitivity for being a pushover. Some of our detractors still try to claim we’re soft on crime. Public safety is held to the highest order. We’ll only accept misdemeanants and felons on a voluntary basis. Anyone in our program is free to head down that very traditional hallway. But if San Quentin is at the other end then we’ve got an inspired individual on our hands even if their psychosis is currently weaving a captivating tale or a raging methamphetamine addict is insisting there’s no problem your Honor.
There are certain conditions for staying in the program like ‘follow your treatment plan’ even if the court knows that a client will inevitably and predictably fall off or trip over the wagon. For one psychotic defendant, this might mean a daily dose of Risperdal and consistent treatment groups; for another, custodial detox followed by 90 days in a residential treatment program. Some leave the program in the first month or just don’t make it. But fast forward six months to a year, after weekly or monthly appearances in court for judicial monitoring and hours of case conferencing among the defendant and committed team members including the Judge, Public Defender, District Attorney, Probation and Treatment – even this individual has become a miracle in his own eyes.
While a newly recovering addict is as real as it gets, graduation, which occurs at the end of the program, is sometimes coupled with the surreal. It’s not uncommon for a graduate to thank his arresting Police Officer (who is invited to the ceremony and given a rose in gratitude) for saving his life. “Getting arrested was the best thing to ever happen to me.” You have to see to believe. The graduation is open to the public and so are our weekly afternoon court sessions.
Do our multiple miracles hold up over time? Given that the majority of our clients were homeless, marginally housed or moderately employed if at all, our statistics are another source of inspiration. In a study several years ago, the number of arrests declined substantially for all Drug Court participants comparing the two years prior to entering and the two years after leaving the program. For graduates, arrests decreased by 83% during this period of time compared to a 42% decrease for non-graduates. And, in an evaluation by UCSF of our Behavioral Health Court published in the September 2007 American Journal of Psychiatry, by 18 months after graduation, the risk of BHC graduates being charged with a new violent crime was about 54% lower than that of other comparable individuals.
Given our success, it’s not surprising that the Superior Court is moving forward on the development of a new court program called the Community Justice Center (CJC). Modeled after New York’s Red Hook and Midtown Manhattan court which transformed the chronic crime problems in these communities, the Superior Court is partnering with members of the Board of Supervisors and city agencies under the direction of the Mayor’s Office to consider a new approach to handling our version of persistent crime. The CJC differs from our aforementioned alternative court programs in two notable ways. This program not only focuses on a specific geographic area, in this case the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, it also includes community participation in an advisory and on-going capacity. The community holds the CJC accountable to community needs which addresses the judicial branch’s interest in increasing public trust and confidence.
During the spring and summer months, and with assistance from the Center for Court Innovation in New York, the court met with individuals, neighborhood groups, social service and housing agencies, and the police, to learn, listen and really hear the concerns of the community. There are long-standing problems – drugs and alcohol lead the way - that have plagued the area for decades.
We held our first Town Hall meeting in January. The dialogue and development of this program is ongoing. We need to keep hearing from the community. But there are a few core concepts in place that make this a very different court program for San Francisco.
Service availability. Services will be available on a walk-in basis in a newly designated facility in the Tenderloin community whether or not an individual is charged with an offense. If someone is charged, offenses will include all misdemeanors (except domestic violence and drunk driving and license cases), and all felony cases (except violence). This court will not handle infractions.
Restorative justice.. The Justice Center is committed to a community-focused approach centered on repairing harm and rebuilding the community through a restorative based practice. An example might be a shoplifter who is directed toward community service that actively engage the defendant, victims and other community members.
Provides accountability. A single judicial officer will hear all the cases. There’s an immeasurable benefit from having personal knowledge of and relationships with repeat offenders with chronic issues. If we’ve seen a defendant before, we’ll be better informed about the case history. For many of our individuals, the judge as authority or pseudo parent is considered one of the most effective tools that tips the balance toward health and stability.
Community participation. A permanent CJC Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from housing, business, workforce development and more will be established to help guide further planning and implementation. A monthly town hall meeting will also be scheduled to hear feedback from the larger community.
The development of San Francisco’s CJC is both an art and a science. There are some program elements we are certain about; others require more feedback from the community or trust in ourselves to open the doors and just do it. In many ways, this art and science is similar to working with clients in our program. The law is the easy part. The challenge is to assess and provide appropriate justice for each person, specifically tailored to each person, with the goal of improving their life and the lives of those live and work in the community.
Director of Collaborative Court Programs
Superior Court of California
County of San Francisco