Innovative Tenderloin court has fans, skeptics [EXCERPT]
By Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
November 30, 2009
A pot of orchids sits on the judge's wooden dais. A courtroom staffer passes around bowls of candy, snatched up with equal glee by lawyers in dark suits and defendants in soiled clothes.
The judge heaps kindness on the defendants, complimenting one woman on her smile and allowing a man who's not feeling well to return another day. Some who particularly please Superior Court Judge Ron Albers with their progress receive $10 Safeway gift cards. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that San Francisco's controversial Community Justice Center - the Tenderloin court created to prosecute low-level crimes that blight the neighborhood - has now sprung to life.
It opened in March at a cost of $2.7 million. Few defendants showed up and most cases were dismissed, prompting some city officials to call it a pricey waste of time.
But on a recent afternoon, 115 defendants filled the standing-room-only court, and 76 percent of defendants are now appearing for their assigned court dates. Albers says that in traditional courtrooms, 20 percent of defendants picked up for committing low-level crimes appear in court.
A unique approach
But the Community Justice Center is anything but traditional.
"How are you today?" Albers asked 38-year-old Tenecia Gippson-Kent.
"Great," she answered, beaming.
"I would say you're blessed," Albers said, asking the room to give her a round of applause.
Gippson-Kent was arrested this fall for passing a bad check. She'd been in and out of jail, mostly on drug charges. She said a cocaine addiction led to her losing her four kids and sleeping on the streets.
Since coming to the Community Justice Center, she's been assigned a case manager. She's taking parenting classes, attending substance abuse support groups and seeing a therapist, and she has a bed in a shelter.