In March, the San Francisco Community Justice Center (CJC) opened its doors to serve the Tenderloin, South of Market, Union Square and Civic Center neighborhoods where 57 percent of the city’s drug-related crimes occur. The justice center’s approach is to link offenders with social services, and to sentence defendants to community service projects to pay back the neighborhoods where crimes take place. Most defendants who complete their court mandate have their charges dismissed.
In the first 100 days since the CJC opened, the program has been able to reduce delay for misdemeanor citations from 45 days to 2 days for the first court appearance. The court has taken most "out of custody" misdemeanor cases, and is increasing its felony cases. The court has successfully engaged people in treatment plans under our diversion laws immediately upon program entry. Of the 160 clients who have engaged in services, 60 accessed care under a justice mandate, 60 defendants voluntarily engaged in services and 40 ‘walked-in’ or were referred from other agencies. There is already a cost-savings story to tell. An estimate of jail bed savings of only 5 CJC defendants totals $23,000. In tracking 2 clients identified as high users of multiple systems (repeated hospital visits, emergency psychiatric treatment, police and fire in a 6 month period), the CJC’s centralized services coupled with court accountability reduced these costs by 50 percent.
The Superior Court joined with city partners to start a justice center because of our achievements in other problem-solving courts. A recently completed San Francisco Drug Court Cost-Benefit Study, published by the Administrative Office of the Courts and NPC Research, Inc. shows a savings of $48 million in program and recidivism costs since the program’s inception in 1995. In 2007, a UCSF study of our nationally recognized Behavioral Health Court for mentally ill offenders found a 26 percent reduction in recidivism in the 18 months after participants entered the program. The city has shown exemplary leadership in supporting collaborative courts and has undertaken new program development in the dependency and juvenile systems as well. Research has shown that repeat offenders have a complicated set of problems that cause their criminal behavior. People are landing in the courtroom because other institutional safety nets are no longer in place. The court has become one of the last stops before jail.
The development of the Community Justice Center is rooted in the problem-solving court model that seeks solutions to long-standing problems through collaboration and partnership. Many San Franciscans support the same approach. In a 2008 baseline survey completed by the Department of Public Health, 60 percent of respondents expressed positive or very positive feelings about the opening of the CJC. Not surprisingly, 87% of respondents cited homelessness and 71% cited drugs as serious problems in the neighborhoods that define the CJC community.
The CJC differs from the other collaborative court programs. The justice center hosts a number of city agencies whose services can be accessed by offenders and the community at large. There are several reasons why this is important. For a defendant coming to the court, the team can problem-solve immediately and fast track the individual to completing community service, finding temporary housing or engaging in other services. For the city’s public health and human services system, we can consolidate and centralize resources and maximize efficiency. Most importantly, this innovative justice facility can provide the much needed treatment and prevention services before someone’s felony criminal charges lands a person in jail.
When the first Drug Court opened twenty years ago in Miami, courts and other criminal justice agencies collaborated to find new ways to reduce crime and improve public safety. All partnering agencies already knew what didn’t work. It was understood that if we ‘did the same, we would get the same.’ In little over three months, the CJC has shown remarkable progress in getting something different. The first 100 days are only the beginning.
Written by Lisa Lightman, Director of the San Francisco Superior Court’s Collaborative Justice Programs