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The H. Carl Moultrie I Courthouse is just over six miles from the neighborhood known as Fort Dupont that straddles Northeast and Southeast Washington, D.C. By car, at 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, the drive takes about 20 minutes. Much of the route — H Street to Benning Road — is filled with liquor stores, fast food restaurants, bombed-out row houses, and barred-in convenience stores. The area east of the Anacostia River is described by its D.C. Council member as having one of the District’s highest poverty and crime levels. It is a drive with which D.C. Superior Court Judge Noel Kramer has quickly become familiar. Since September, Kramer has made this part of the city her beat. And over the past two months, the presiding judge of the court’s Criminal Division has made it out to this area on at least three occasions to convince residents that she is trying to make their neighborhood safer. Kramer is leading a new pilot program at the court, which aims to reduce crime in a particular part of the city by targeting the root causes of criminal behavior — substance abuse, unemployment, and poverty. Its formal name is Community Court, but the plan is to match up certain defendants with social programs intended to keep them from returning to the criminal justice system. “We are trying to do things in a different way,” Kramer told a packed room at the Metropolitan Police Department’s 6th District station last week. “I kind of see this as people who are overwhelmed by their personal needs and desperately need services because their personal issues such as drugs, alcohol, homelessness, or lack of employment leads them to committing crimes. “If we solve some of their personal needs, then crime will go down,” Kramer added. Superior Court is swamped with thousands of misdemeanor cases that rarely go to trial. To dispose of these matters is both time-consuming and expensive. Many of those arrested for prostitution or shoplifting have their cases dismissed by the government or receive small penalties or fines. Many never comply with their sentence and are eventually rearrested for the same behavior. The Community Court concept views minor crimes as indicia of serious problems within a neighborhood. Rather than simply processing these cases through the court in bulk, Community Court seeks to address the criminal behavior of each defendant by matching up sanctions and programs with the offender’s crime or needs. It then makes sure the offender complies with the sentence. There is no fight over guilt. Evidence is accepted by the defense and the defendant admits to the crime. Judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers act as quasi-social workers offering a defendant options that, if properly followed, will allow a case to be wiped from his or her record. In addition, the offender is required to make restitution to the community where the crime took place. The courtroom also becomes a direct link to social programs, such as drug treatment and job training. In Kramer’s courtroom, a member of D.C.’s Pretrial Services Agency is on hand to suggest programs and let the judge know what options are available. Solutions are offered to the defendant at arraignment rather than at a later hearing date. The concept is an enormous shift in how cases are handled in Superior Court and carries the promise of saving the city millions of dollars in police overtime and other court costs. One of the court’s goals is to dispose of each case on the first day. “The idea is to care less about whether someone is guilty or not guilty and instead to focus on what their needs are,” Kramer says. Kramer, 57, who has been on the bench since 1984, is the likely candidate to lead the reform. For the past two years, she has been working on ways to reduce court spending on criminal cases with quality control measures. For instance, in 2000, she was in charge of trimming the list of court-appointed lawyers from more than 600 to about 350. I’LL TAKE MANHATTAN The Superior Court’s pilot project is modeled after two community courts in New York City — one in Times Square and another in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. In these programs, the courthouse is located in the neighborhood it services. Both have been operating for less than a decade, but the Midtown Manhattan Court was lauded in a 1997 National Center for State Courts study for meeting its goals. That study found that during its first 18 months of operation there was a 50 percent increase in compliance with community service sentences. In addition, the study concluded that the time from arrest to arraignment in Community Court — 18 hours — was 12 hours less than in the city’s traditional downtown court. Arrests for prostitution in midtown Manhattan dropped by 56 percent. In the District, the project is starting out on a small scale. Kramer is the only judge whose calendar is devoted to misdemeanor arrests made in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 6th District — an area just under a square mile in Northeast Washington. The crimes, which are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and carry a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail, consist of simple possession of cocaine or marijuana, prostitution, simple assault, shoplifting, theft, and property damage, to name a few. Murder, burglary, and felony drug dealing cases are still being handled in the court’s usual fashion. The day after being arrested, those who qualify for Community Court are brought before Kramer. If a defendant is matched to a program, the defendant is ordered directly to it. In many instances, the individual does not plead guilty — rather, the charge remains until the court-ordered program is completed. “The idea is to do it quickly,” says D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus King III. “You go into drug treatment immediately. You don’t wait 60 or 90 days.” There is also an effort under way to make the punishment for certain offenses community-based. For example, people busted for breaking into cars may be required to clean up an alley or street in the area where the crime took place. Some residents of the neighborhood say they are cautiously excited about the project. “We’re going to give it an opportunity to see if it works,” says Linda Smith, president of the Citizens Advisory Council, adding that residents would like to see more jobs available in the neighborhood. “On paper, it looks very promising,” says D.C. Police Captain Christopher Cummings of the 6th District. D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, whose Ward 7 includes the 6th District, says he is pleased the court is engaging the community. “It tells my constituents that they are important enough to be a part of something new and unique,” Chavous says. But two months into the project, many obstacles remain. For one, the success of the court depends upon community involvement and the availability of social programs, especially at a time when government spending has been dramatically curtailed. The court is still trying to get commitments from several D.C. agencies, including the Department of Employment Services and the Department of Public Works. Some current programs, such as one run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to deal with prostitution, have yet to get off the ground, according to some defense lawyers. Other programs, such as an alcohol awareness program at the court, have been shut down after running out of funds. And some defense counsel are concerned that the driving force behind the Community Court project is a desire to save money — a factor that could conflict with a defendant’s right to a fair trial. “This idea didn’t initially come from the idea that we need more diversion programs,” says Laura Hankins, special counsel to D.C. Public Defender Service Director Ronald Sullivan. “It came from how we have a serious problem with police overtime. “Trying to make cases move through the system faster is not necessarily good for the defendant,” Hankins adds. POLICING OVERTIME D.C.’s Community Court is directly rooted in the city’s effort to reduce police overtime. (The 6th District police station was selected as the site of the pilot Community Court, in part, because of its existing programs to reduce police overtime.) In May 2001, a Justice Management Institute and Council for Court Excellence study found that the city was spending $10 million a year on police overtime. It concluded that police spent much of that time being summoned to court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for minor cases that never went to trial. That same month, a congressional committee ordered D.C. Superior Court, the Police Department, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to come up with a proposal to manage court time. One of the court’s most troubling spots is its Traffic Court, which also handles minor misdemeanors prosecuted by the Office of the D.C. Corporation Counsel. In Traffic Court, cases rarely go to trial, yet it remains one of the court’s busiest divisions with more than 10,000 new cases a year. More than half these cases involve people caught driving without a license. Earlier this year, court leaders implemented a new plan in which diversion programs or other options would be offered and defense lawyers encouraged to settle matters on the initial court date. For example, the city gave these “no permit” offenders an opportunity to get a valid drivers license. If they succeeded, the charge would be dropped. “We’re trying to use a common sense approach,” says Magistrate Judge Richard Ringell, who presides over Traffic Court. Ringell adds that he recently was able to get the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to assist people who have been ordered by him to get their licenses cleared up. Court officials say they have noticed a 50 percent decrease in the number of bench warrants issued in Traffic Court, meaning that more people are complying with their sentence. But there are still many funding and communications problems. In September, Ringell lost an alcohol awareness program that was held at the courthouse every afternoon. The three-hour lecture was paid for by D.C. Corrections Trustee John Clark, whose office was statutorily closed down. “It’s very frustrating not having that to use as a sentencing tool,” Ringell says. JOB SEARCH Earlier this year, a group of court staff visited two of New York City’s community courts. Court staff were particularly impressed with the Red Hook court in Brooklyn, noting that the court, which took seven years to establish, had under one roof every resource needed to deal with a case. “I’ve never seen prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and case workers actually working as a team the way they were and treating people as people,” says Dan Cipullo, director of the Superior Court’s Criminal Division. Since establishing the Community Court calendar, Kramer says there have been several surprises. There are not as many cases as she initially estimated. There have also been several occasions where the defendant does not qualify for a diversion program because he is already on probation or on parole for another offense. She says that she expected to see more assaults. Instead, there are many more prostitution arrests than she anticipated. Between Sept. 23 and Nov. 13, Kramer released 58 defendants into diversion programs. Of those, 36 are being drug-tested regularly. Eight are in drug treatment, including four who were sent to D.C.’s Drug Court and another to a 30-day inpatient treatment program. Another six are waiting to be certified into Drug Court. Five have been ordered into social services programs — employment-, housing-, or education-based. And one person was ordered to be under 24-hour electronic monitoring for 21 days. At the Nov. 20 Community Court meeting at the 6th District police station, Kramer told the audience of a woman in her 40s who was arrested for prostitution. Kramer said she was surprised to learn that the woman had no prior criminal record. “I looked at her, and I said, ‘Ma’am, you need a job don’t you?’ and she began to cry,” Kramer said. “Clearly she was out on the street because she had no resources.” Added Kramer: “And I was able to say, ‘I believe I have a program I can refer you to for employment resources.’ “

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