I like to go down and just talk with people and hear their stories and see the graduations and hear participants talk about how their life has moved a step forward.
A challenge for problem-solving courts can be reaching the people, like the homeless or the mentally ill, whose problems the court is trying to help solve. A model that is getting a lot of attention on the West Coast right now is situating community courts, and the social services they offer, in friendly downtown settings where people already tend to gather. Since 2016, with help from a grant program we operate with the Department of Justice, the community court in Eugene, Oregon, has met every week in the downtown library. On our New Thinking podcast, Matthew Watkins speaks with Cheryl Stone, the court administrator who helped bring the new model to Eugene.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
MATTHEW WATKINS: Hi, I'm Matthew Watkins, and you're listening to the New Thinking Podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. One challenge of problem-solving courts is reaching the people, like the homeless, whose problems you're trying to help solve. On the West Coast right now, a model that's getting a lot of attention is situating community courts in friendly, downtown settings where people already tend to gather. Since 2016, with help from a grant program we operate with the Department of Justice, the Community Court in Eugene, Oregon has met every week in the downtown library. Cheryl Stone is the court administrator for the city, and she helped lead the effort to bring the new model to Eugene.
Cheryl, thanks very much for joining me today.
CHERYL STONE: Sure, thank you.
WATKINS: So I thought maybe we could start by having you describe a bit Eugene's downtown and I guess some of the issues that led to the interest in this new Community Court model for the city.
STONE: So, the city of Eugene serves a population of about 160,000 residents. The downtown core is pretty active; there's a lot of city events and different things that happen downtown. Also downtown is probably the highest concentration of unhoused individuals who sleep on sidewalks or in doorways. The city, for a long time, has been working towards evaluating that issue and looking at different types of solutions. A lot of the in the downtown area are things like what we would call "quality of life crimes": criminal trespass, disorderly conduct. Because of the high concentration in the downtown area, when we did a community survey to find out the perceptions of public safety, the community actually also highlighted the downtown area as a concern for them; in fact, right in the middle of downtown is our library and also a bus station, and 48% of the respondents indicated that they felt that that area was unsafe or somewhat unsafe.
WATKINS: So homeless people downtown are repeatedly attracting the attention of police. How were those problems being dealt with by the justice system in Eugene prior to the Community Court coming on board?
STONE: Sure. Before Community Court, our municipal court had a mental health court. As much as we could identify people with some mental health issues, we would divert them to that area, but other than that, essentially the sanctions were jail, road crew, probation, fines, fees, those kinds of things.
WATKINS: How would you say that model was working out in terms of trying to solve some of the problems that are bringing these people into the courts again and again?
STONE: It was not very effective at all. In fact, in 2013 we did an analysis that showed about 25% of all the charges filed here were committed by almost 5% of the number of [defendants 00:03:30], a small number of people chronically offending repeatedly. We've seen a significant improvement in that in 2017. It's a pretty significant drop when you can connect people with the right resources that address their needs so that they're not continually re-offending.
WATKINS: So at a certain point, you start looking around for other models that are out there with community courts. What do you turn up in your research?
STONE: My research actually started in 2011 before I came to the city of Eugene. I was involved in a program with the National Center for State Courts, and I wrote a paper called "Access to Justice For Displaced Defendants," and it was really about these quality-of-life types of offenses and the impact that they have on the justice system, and the response the justice system has to those individuals. In that research, I ran across the Red Hook Community Court and I was able to talk with Fred Cheesman, who evaluated that court. It was obvious to me that that kind of approach would be more effective that putting people in jail and then just releasing them back out on the street again, and putting people in jail. Fines aren't effective at all because they don't have the means to pay the fines. That was one of my recommendations in that paper, said that community court would be a good way to address those chronic quality-of-life issues.
WATKINS: How about this idea of situating the court in the library? Where did that come from?
STONE: Sure. While we were putting together our grant applications, towards the end of that, our team made a visit to Spokane Community Court. Spokane is in Washington. It's a similarly-situated city, and the library is the model that they used. When we stepped into their library and saw how they were servicing people, we immediately were drawn to that idea of being in a location that is already servicing the same population and having providers right on-site for those individuals available not only to offenders, but available to the community at large. Our library, similar to Spokane, is situated right in the heart of downtown, and it's right next to public transportation. It's really convenient, very welcoming. What's so nice about it is you don't have to invest a lot of capital in a new building or a new space. The library already meets the majority, and if you really look closely at the mission of most libraries, it's maybe not directly tied to justice but it is similar in heart to what the court has in terms of providing services and access.
WATKINS: So how does the Eugene model work? Maybe if you would just walk us through a hypothetical defendant?
STONE: During the week, if an officer has an interaction with an individual in the downtown geographic area and they issue a citation, they will cite them into the library. It actually has the library's address on it and it's on a Friday. As people come in, they come through security, a very friendly security officer. They'll check in, and everybody's name goes up on a whiteboard so they know where they're at in the process, they know what the next step is. They go through the Center for Court Innovation Assessment Tool, is what we use, that assesses their risk of re-offending and it also gives us information about their social service and criminogenic needs. Out of that, we produce a draft, case plan, and a petition. It's a diversion program. Their cases will be dismissed if they engage in the program. How long their program is is dependent on their risk of re-offending.
Their case plan also indicates which service providers they would be required to engage with for the duration of their program. If they have a substance abuse issue or they have a mental health issue, they'll be expected to be evaluated and engage in treatment, and housing as well. If they're un-housed, then they will be required to take a housing assessment or pursue housing while they're in the program. Once they've taken the assessment, they'll meet with their defense attorney, and their defense attorney explains all their rights and what the program is, and the commitment. Then they can opt in or opt out. If they choose to opt out, their case will get reset to the traditional court. If they opt in, they'll enter into that program that same day, and then once they're done with that core process, we have volunteers that escort them to the next room. They'll meet with their case manager, and then they will meet with providers. Each participant also has to give eight hours in community service.
Then on their way out after they have connected with providers, we have a group of faith-based organizations that donate sack lunches every week, and so they leave with a lunch. Then they're required every week to come and report into the cast manager, and they see the judge on a regular basis. Not every week, but monthly at least.
WATKINS: This is all taking place, then, on the same day in the same location?
STONE: Yes, on the same day in the same location. The other thing is that people don't have to have a citation to come. If somebody from the community wants to come in and access services, they don't go through the court process but they can come in and access that provider room, and talk to any of the providers in housing, treatment, Catholic community services, employment, Social Security, people there to help, crisis intervention. All kinds of services.
WATKINS: Then I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the reception of the court in Eugene and some different groups I'm interested in. Maybe for starters, let's say police and local business people. What have been their reactions?
STONE: Our police have been great partners. Our library has been a wonderful partner. Our police have another program that's downtown that they call Community Outreach Response Team, and it works really nicely with Community Court. They proactively go out and work with people who have a high number of calls instead of going out when there's an incident. They're able to go out and meet with those people and say, "Hey, come in on Friday and let's go access this housing service, or let's go access this other service" before a citation even starts. Our police department has been a wonderful partner in this, and they also have one officer on-site. It's been a great relationship-building experience for them. I would say our businesses, there's a variety of opinions. I think most of them like the approach to Community Court and they like the idea that people can move on in a positive direction.
At the same time, they still have people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of their businesses. The conversation that we are continually having is that Community Court doesn't solve all problems. There's some people who opt out, there's some people who aren't ready for treatment. There's some people who aren't ready to be housed. It doesn't solve the problem generally, but it sure has made an impact on improving the situation downtown.
WATKINS: Then what about the reaction from advocates for the homeless, who I think sometimes in the past have criticized the city's approach and seen a sort of over-criminalization of homelessness, homeless people getting infractions simply for doing what they need to do to survive? Have you heard reactions from them?
STONE: I think we've heard a variety of reactions from them. They're still a group of people that are very active around advocacy for homeless. Really, I think we would be in agreement with them that there needs to be more housing resources. People need to be able to have a place to be housed, and we would agree there's definitely a shortage there. Our service providers and other kinds of advocates, they love this program and they refer people here all the time. They love the synergy even amongst the providers in the room. If one provider is working with an individual and they say, "Hey, come on Friday. I'll connect you with St. Vincent DePaul, and they can give you a clothing voucher, or we'll get you connected with housing through this person." It's so much nicer for them to be able to say, "Hey, come on Friday" and they know everybody in the room, and they can work together to help problem-solve for an individual.
WATKINS: We may have people listening who might be interested in trying to set up something similar in their own community. Are there some unexpected challenges that came up for you along the way?
STONE: Probably three of the biggest challenges that we've had, one is our space. We love being at the library, but I think we underestimated the need for this kind of a program. We oftentimes have large group of people, so it can be a little chaotic in there. Two, we underestimated the involvement in the community. We had hoped that more community members would come in to volunteer, to help with community service kinds of projects, and to really kind of help restore people to the community. We've seen pockets of that, but in general, we can always use more volunteers. We are rethinking how we do our community service; maybe doing some more skill-building with individuals. Other than that, I think it takes a lot of coordination. There's a big resource in terms of coordinating all the different pieces of volunteers and service providers, and court, and lunches, coffee, and all that, but it's definitely rewarding work.
WATKINS: Do you have a sense yet of any early results on the court's performance?
STONE: Well I can tell you that when we look back at the number of individuals who have graduated our program, 91% of them have not re-offended, have not had a new offense in municipal court at all. That includes whether it's in our area or not. 91% of them have not re-offended in the municipal court jurisdiction.
WATKINS: Then just to end on a slightly more personal note, you're clearly pretty passionate about this court. Would you say it's had an effect on your job satisfaction level as a court administrator?
STONE: Definitely. I recently read this quote from Jon Acuff, and it says, "The joy of doing work that matters is enjoying the harvest." I'm at the point now where I don't have to be down there every week to help keep the wheels on, but I like to do go down and just talk with people, and hear their story, and see the graduations, and hear participants talk about how their life has moved a step forward or to see the hope and the countenance on faces, and just really enjoying seeing people improve their self-esteem or their confidence.
WATKINS: Well, that's great. Cheryl, I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
STONE: Thank you.
WATKINS: I've been speaking with Cheryl Stone. Cheryl is the court administrator for the city of Eugene.
For more information on the Eugene Community Court, you can visit our website at courtinnovation.org. You've been listening to another episode of the New Thinking Podcast from the Center for Court Innovation. Our theme music is by Michael Aaron at quivernyc.com. Please consider leaving us a review in Apple Podcasts. It does help new listeners discover the show. I'm Matthew Watkins. Thanks for listening.