In order to sanction offenders who commit certain low-level offenses and educate them about the effects of their actions, planners at Midtown Community Court came up with the idea of Community Impact Panels: mediated sessions in which community members meet with offenders to discuss the impact of their offenses on the community.
The Midtown Community Court was established in 1993 to combat quality-of-life offenses such as shoplifting, turnstile jumping and graffiti. The Court, the first of its kind in the nation, is based on the philosophy that meaningful and visible sanctions for low-level crimes, combined with access to services, can restore a community's sense of safety as well as prevent future offending. Typical sanctions include one to 10 days of community service, such as painting over graffiti or cleaning up local parks. Services, which can either be mandated by the court or accessed voluntarily, include on-site counseling, drug treatment and job training.
For some offenses, however, Court planners had difficulty finding a sanction to match the crime. Some low-level offenses, such as public drinking or public urination, were too minor to warrant a full day of community service, but too serious to let go with a fine. In addition to calibrating the punishment with the crime, the Court wanted to find a way to make the sanction meaningful to both the community and the offender.
"For a lot of [low-level] offenders, paying a fine is too easy," says Judge Eileen Koretz, who presides at the Midtown Community Court. "They just pay and get out. They don't really understand why the police are bothering to pick them up; that police don't just arrest people, they respond to the community's concerns."
In order to sanction offenders who commit certain low-level offenses and educate them about the effects of their actions, court planners came up with the idea of Community Impact Panels. This sanction requires more of the offender than a fine, but is not as time-consuming as community service, thus matching the seriousness of the crime to its punishment. Community Impact Panels are mediated sessions in which community members meet with offenders to discuss the impact of their offenses on the community. The goal is to show offenders that their crimes harm the neighborhood and to keep them from offending again.
Each Community Impact Panel is composed of community representatives, a facilitator, and offenders. The community representatives are volunteers, recruited by the Court from the neighborhood. They include people who live and work in the area: merchants, citizens, social service providers, the police and representatives of the faith community. The facilitator is a trained mediator. The role of the mediator is to help the two groups stay focused and maintain respect for each other over the course of the discussion.
Planners decided that it was vital for participation in the Panels to be mandatory for offenders. Compelling offenders of low-level offenses to go to Court and attend an Impact Panel is a form of punishment that expresses the community's disapproval.
In January 1999, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, Community Impact Panels made their formal debut as a sanction at the Court. In the courtroom, the judge makes a determination about whether an Impact Panel is an appropriate sanction for a given offender as part of the standard plea bargain process. Typically, those linked to the Impact Panels are offenders with no previous record. If sanctioned, participation in the Impact Panels is mandatory.
On the day the Impact Panel has been scheduled, offenders receive a basic, one-hour training and orientation from a Court mediator. Community members also receive a one-hour training to help them prepare for the unpredictable nature of the conversations. In addition to explaining the basic purpose of the Impact Panels, the Court provides volunteers with tips for defusing anger and using non-judgmental language.
The Impact Panel discussion lasts one hour and usually includes four offenders, four community members and a Court mediator. All of the participants sit together around a table, with community members on one side and offenders on the other. The mediator initiates the discussion and then facilitates, making sure that everyone is allowed an opportunity to share his or her perspective. Discussion often covers a wide range of issues, from the causes of the crimes committed to possible solutions. Brief surveys are administered both before and after Impact Panels to gauge their effectiveness. After offenders complete the requirement, their cases are dismissed after six months so long as they aren't re-arrested.
Finding the appropriate tone: Panel participation is intended to be a positive experience for everyone involved, which is why skilled facilitators are essential to ensure that both sides maintain an attitude of respect. "If what you want is respect for your neighborhood, you can help that process out by giving some respect up front," says Stuart Sears, a mediator who originally helped coordinate the project.
Sears, who facilitated many of the Panels and who also helped attract community volunteers, learned that offenders say more when the process is not overly judgmental of them. Community representatives are also uncomfortable with the process when they feel they need to judge the offenders. This distinction had not been made clear at one early Panel in which all the offenders were johns. "They felt they were being asked to judge the people sitting across the table from them, and they reacted against that," Sears recalls. "That really made us rethink what we were doing in terms of training participants. We don't want the community representatives to do something that two hours later they feel badly about."
Integrating police into the panel: Soon after the program began, the Police Department representative on the Court's advisory board suggested that a police officer would be able to contribute an important perspective to the conversation, allowing offenders and community members to understand how police make decisions related to the topic at hand. Others feared, however, that a police officer would intimidate offenders and inhibit their candor. And some also worried that a police officer's presence would be a distraction, turning the Panel into a cop-bashing session. As it turned out, the police perspective was integrated into the sessions without sabotaging the spirit of trust and honesty or diverting conversation.
Recruiting volunteers: Panels are sometimes difficult to arrange. The Court tries not to use community members more than once or twice in order to keep the voices fresh and to involve over time as many community members as possible. Finding new community members and scheduling the Impact Panels at a mutually convenient time, however, kept the number of Panels relatively small—16 over the course of the programs's first year, involving 44 community members and 59 defendants. This represents only a small fraction of the Court's annual caseload of over 15,000 cases. Recruiting community members has gotten a little easier over time as word of mouth about the Panels has grown.
Nearly 70 percent of participants—both offenders and community members—reported that the Impact Panels were "worthwhile" or "very worthwhile." All 59 offenders surveyed answered affirmatively when asked whether they felt the community members had treated them with respect. When asked what they learned from the process, answers included: "It enlightened me that people live in this area," "It drives home the point of personal responsibility very effectively," and "I learned that specific acts can have a ripple effect." These responses are particularly significant given the offenders' attitudes toward their offenses prior to the Panels: 60 percent had said that they thought their actions were "not harmful."
As for community participants, 96 percent felt that the Impact Panels had given them the opportunity to present their point of view. And 84 percent felt that the offenders who participated had learned that their actions had a negative effect on the surrounding community. This response was typical: "It's an opportunity for the offenders to see the faces of the people they have affected. It makes it real."