Mentor Courts

South Dallas Community Court Judge Cheryl Williams listens to a court participant.South Dallas Community Court Judge Cheryl Williams listens to a court participant.

Four Community Courts to Help Spread Community Justice

In September 2014, the Center for Court Innovation, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, chose community courts in Dallas, Tex., Hartford, Conn., Orange County, Calif., and San Francisco, Calif., to serve as mentor courts for jurisdictions seeking to enhance procedural justice and promote the use of alternatives to jail where appropriate. 

"The mentor courts will encourage courts around the country to rethink the standard approach to low-level crime, emphasizing alternatives to incarceration where appropriate and engaging local residents in doing justice," said Kim Ball, senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Community courts emphasize alternative responses to minor crime. Low-level offenders are sentenced to pay back the community through visible restitution projects, including removing graffiti, cleaning neighborhood parks, and helping maintain public spaces. At the same time, they are linked to drug treatment, mental health services, job training, and other services to help them address the underlying issues that often fuel criminal behavior. Community courts place special emphasis on treating individual offenders with dignity and respect. Research has shown that this commitment to "procedural justice" can reduce crime, improve compliance with court orders, and enhance public trust in the justice system—a particularly pressing need in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

The new mentor courts—which were chosen in a competitive application process—will host site visits, answer questions over the phone or internet from justice reformers, and participate in conferences and workshops. Practitioners interested in taking advantage of the mentor sites’ expertise are encouraged to contact the courts directly. The four mentor courts are:

Hartford Community CourtThe Orange County Community Court encourages walk-in visitors to access services.The Orange County Community Court encourages walk-in visitors to access services.
The Hartford Community Court is the first program designed to apply community court principles to an entire city. To maintain strong community connections, the Hartford Court seeks to assign offenders to perform community service in the neighborhood where they committed their offense. The court encourages residents and local groups to recommend service sites, maintains a community service hot line, and reports back to the community via a quarterly newsletter. The Hartford Community Court now serves five surrounding towns outside of the City of Hartford, thus making it the only community court in the nation that serves both urban and suburban communities. The Hartford Community Court also served as a mentor court under the previous initiative launched in 2009. To arrange a visit or for more information contact Chris Pleasanton at Chris.Pleasanton@jud.ct.gov.

Orange County Community Court
Started in 2008, the Orange County Community Court houses numerous problem-solving calendars—veterans court, drug court, mental health court, DUI court, and homeless outreach court—in one community-based location that offers offenders on-site access to social services. Members of the community court team assess offenders and refer them to appropriate services including mental health and substance abuse treatment, transitional housing services, and vocational training. The Orange County Community Court employs community service as a way for offenders to remain productive while searching for employment or completing educational goals. To arrange a visit or for more information contact Paul Shapiro at pshapiro@occourts.org. 

San Francisco Community Justice Center
The San Francisco Community Justice Center serves misdemeanor and non-violent felony offenders arrested in the Tenderloin, South of Market, Union Square, and Civic Center neighborhoods. The court offers onsite social services including drug treatment, mental health programs, support groups, counseling, career development, and job training. In 2013, the Community Justice Center launched a special calendar to better assist veterans returning from their service. The Community Justice Center convenes an advisory board and town hall meetings to facilitate communication between the court and the public and to improve public trust in the justice system. To arrange a visit, or for more information, contact Allyson West at awest@sftc.org.

The area served by the San Francisco Community Justice Center.The area served by the San Francisco Community Justice Center.South Dallas Community Court
The South Dallas Community Court serves a high-poverty neighborhood in the South Dallas area and is housed in a neighborhood community center. The South Dallas Community Court has created a number of innovative programs, including: the New Life Opportunity Initiative, designed to link young women engaged in prostitution to mental health and substance abuse treatment and housing services; a reentry program that tackles the challenges faced by individuals returning to the community from jail; and a community service program for truant youth. Based on the success of the project, the City Attorney’s Office expanded community court to include locations in the West Dallas and South Oak Cliff neighborhoods. The South Dallas Community Court also served as a mentor court under the previous initiative launched in 2009. To arrange a visit or for more information contact dianne gibson at dianne.gibson@dallascityhall.com.

For more information about the Mentor Community Court program, or to learn more about no-cost assistance in launching community courts, enhancing procedural justice, or promoting alternatives to incarceration, please contact info@courtinnovation.org.

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