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The five people presiding over a court in the plain conference room at a Mission Street accounting firm have never gone to law school. But such volunteer San Franciscans have been handing out sentences to people arrested for relatively minor misdemeanors in their neighborhoods — like shoplifting, selling tobacco to a minor, or possessing less than an ounce of marijuana — for about five years. The city’s “community court” program has more than doubled in size in the last year or so. Launched in two neighborhoods in 1998, the program has expanded to eight, with five added in 2002 alone. District Attorney Terence Hallinan said community court is a way to deal with thousands of low-level, primarily quality-of-life misdemeanors that would cost more to prosecute in the traditional courts — or that might not be pursued at all given limited resources. There are at least two carrots for eligible defendants, who have a choice between community court and trying their luck at the Hall of Justice. If they fulfill their community court sentence and stay out of trouble for 12 months, they don’t get a conviction on their record. And, the neighborhood courts can’t send them to jail. The neighborhood panels can only order fines, restitution to victims, community service, or participation in a support service such as anger management classes. Prosecutors say the system’s volunteers are reputed to give out harsher sentences than the average judge, though the five neighbors who held court at the Excelsior branch Tuesday looked like neighbors you might run into at the grocery store. Take Lucia Paulazzo. The 73-year-old panelist looks like somebody’s grandmother, but her fellow panelists call her “Maxie” — as in maximum sentence. It’s easy to see why, when the panel tries to reach a consensus on a 69-year-old man who admitted taking two books from a Borders bookstore without paying, but claims to be repentant. At one end of the conference table, Richard Colin suggests one day of community service. “Because of his age, we should have a little compassion.” Paulazzo urges more, and the group ends up giving the man a choice: two days or a $160 fine. He tries to convince them he can’t afford a fine, and is too feeble to do community service, saying he would soon turn 70 and has a stomach ulcer. Paulazzo countered, “I’m 73. I don’t worry about it; I work every day.” The man chose community service after all, and the panel assured him he could be placed in a manageable service. The proceedings are not without lighter moments. After dishing out two days of community service to a 20-year-old man caught smoking pot in the passenger seat of a moving car, panelist Andrea O’Leary good-naturedly reminded him, “You want to be real careful about where you have your parties, like not on the highway.” And when a woman admitted giving a fake name to a police officer when confronted on the street, she got a day of community service, but no lecture from Paulazzo. When O’Leary asked why no lecture was forthcoming, Paulazzo replied, “I think she was scared.” The Excelsior court saw six defendants in about an hour last week. That may seem like small potatoes, but the numbers add up when you consider it was a light calendar, and that each of the eight community courts meets once or twice a month. All in all, the courts put a healthy dent in the roughly 30,000 misdemeanors that come to the DA’s office every year, Hallinan said. About 1,000 of the 2,600 eligible defendants chose to use community court in 2002, said Mitchell Salazar, the DA’s director of community-based programs and liaison to the community courts. Thom Bateman, president of the nonprofit California Community Dispute Services, which administers the San Francisco program, projects that the neighborhood courts will see three times as many defendants in 2003, the first year with all eight branches in full swing. Officials who work with the program point out where it saves money. Businesses, community centers, churches and schools donate space, and neighbors volunteer their time as panelists. And while there are a handful of city staff and contract workers who administer the program, the proceedings don’t require lawyers, clerks, a court reporter, a judge or a bailiff. The total price comes to about $466,000 a year, 70 percent of it funded by grants, city officials said. The fines each community court collects don’t go towards running them, but are redistributed to nonprofit organizations for events or projects within that court’s neighborhood.

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