5 years in, verdict is positive for S.F. community court
By Heather Knight
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
San Francisco Chronicle
Wearing the traditional black robe and armed with the traditional wooden gavel, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Braden Woods had instructions for the dozens of defendants sitting in his decidedly nontraditional courtroom.
Some were typical: When you're asked to submit to a drug test - do it. And don't even think about diluting your sample with water.
Some were not so typical: You will clap when asked to.
"Give everybody a hand who's in full compliance," he said of the defendants who have attended all their mandated court hearings and social service program meetings. "All these folks deserve a big hand for putting in a lot of good work."
The court itself is getting a big hand Wednesday - and from some unlikely fans. The Community Justice Center on Polk Street is marking its fifth anniversary and is being hailed by longtime supporters and former critics alike for steadily improving the lives of those caught committing crimes in the Tenderloin and gradually improving the downtrodden neighborhood, too.
The widespread support is in marked contrast to the court's beginnings.
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom first pushed for the court after a 2007 visit to Manhattan's Midtown Community Court, where offenders, including prostitutes and subway fare evaders, are offered the chance to have their crimes wiped from their records in exchange for participating in social services or performing community service.
Newsom first pitched the Tenderloin court as a place to tackle quality-of-life crimes such as camping on sidewalks and public urination, an idea that drew scorn from the public defender, homeless advocates and progressive members of the Board of Supervisors. They dubbed it Newsom's "poverty court" and said it would criminalize homeless people.
In 2008, Newsom placed an advisory ballot measure to fund the court before voters - and lost resoundingly. Nonetheless, he'd already secured funding to run the court for one year and managed to keep it running after that.
The San Francisco Superior Court, which runs the Community Justice Center, changed the focus to more serious crimes such as drug dealing, shoplifting and car break-ins. It handles misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, a focus that eased many critics' concerns.
'They support me'
For Chesterfield Jones, the arrest came for selling prescription painkillers to an undercover police officer. The 63-year-old has participated in the Community Justice Center for a year and a half, is in drug treatment, has obtained housing and comes to see the judge every week, even though he's not required to.
"I like that they support me and help me do things I can't do myself," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, my life has changed."
Jones is one of 6,000 defendants whose cases have been heard at the Community Justice Center since it opened in March 2009. More than 2,500 have participated in social service programs, and they've cumulatively performed 9,100 hours of community service.
Most defendants at the court are single, African American males. The average age is 39, and more than half of those ordered to appear at the court are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Most are unemployed and lack permanent housing.
Woods hears an average of 100 cases each day. Defendants are assigned a case manager and are ordered by the judge to participate in anything from Narcotics Anonymous meetings to job training to mental health counseling.
They also must regularly check in with Woods to report on their progress. Those who perform well are sometimes offered gift cards to local stores and eventually "graduate" from the court with clean records.
Financing the center
The city pays $1.1 million annually to fund the social service component of the court, and other agencies, including the district attorney's office and public defender's office, provide staffing out of their regular budgets.
On Wednesday afternoon, a host of city officials will visit the court to hail its fifth anniversary. Even Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who initially despised the idea and said he didn't have enough lawyers to staff the court, is scheduled to speak at the event. (His office now handles the defense for at least 80 percent of the cases.)
"I do think the court is being able to provide the services and address the problems that it set out to do," he said.
'Not a homeless court'
T. Michael Yuen, the court executive officer for San Francisco Superior Court, worked for Newsom in the mayor's budget office during the battle over the court's founding.
"I'd like to think that five years later we proved the critics wrong," he said. "It is not a homeless court. We are so much more than that."
Lynnell Peterson, 47, would agree. He was arrested last year for being in possession of methamphetamine, the last of "several, several, several" drug arrests, he said. He's now attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, has been drug-free for several months and is learning computer skills in hopes of finding a job.
"The court here gives you the opportunity, you know what I'm saying, to turn your life around, to make a change," he said. "The judge here gives you two or three chances. If you don't make it by that third chance, you don't want to do it."
The tall, thin man appeared in court for his regular check-in wearing jeans and a Fat Albert jacket. Woods praised Peterson for his progress, gave him a $10 Safeway gift card and ordered everybody in the courtroom to applaud.
"He's the star of the day," Woods said. "Bravo, Mr. Peterson. Mr. Peterson, you're doing great."
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