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Swift adjudication and consistent sentencing are the hallmarks of the few gun courts operating in the country. The first two gun courts, which were very different in design, were created in 1994. After a decade-long lull, three more have been launched recently. They come in two sizes�juvenile and adult�and they are controversial because of their limited flexibility. While there are many juvenile gun programs, there is only one juvenile gun court. It opened in Jefferson County, Ala., in 1994. It’s for first-time offenders from 8 to 17 years old who are found in possession of a gun-sometimes at school. According to a study done by the Samford University Cumberland School of Law and the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2000�the only statistical study of the court�recidivism for any crime, not just guns, was 17%, compared with 40% for a control group that did not go through the court. All those eligible for gun court got an adjudicatory hearing within 10 business days of their arrest, compared with 80% for the control group, whose members came from Bessemer, a much smaller city in Jefferson County. Child murder was up Presiding Jefferson County Family Court Judge Sandra Storm came up with the idea of the court. “We started the court when the murder rate of our children was so high,” Storm said. “It’s way down now . . . and maybe we’re a piece of that. What made our program unique is the parental involvement and intensive probation.” Intensive is an understatement. Here’s how it works, according to James Sparks, a juvenile probation officer who’s been with the program since its inception: Those arrested on a gun possession charge are detained. There is a detention hearing within 72 hours and, if necessary, a trial within the next three weeks. If the case is adjudicated against the juvenile, either by a plea or trial, within a few days the child and his or her parents meet with a probation officer to discuss the program. Then, in less than two weeks, it’s off to a 28-day stay in a state-run boot camp for boys. Girls, about 5% of those held, have to wait longer because of logistics, and their stay in boot camp is two weeks longer. “The girls have to wait because the state of Alabama has not provided adequately for girls,” asserted Storm, who added that the girl’s boot-camp stay is longer, but neither she nor Sparks nor an official at the Department of Youth Services could explain why. Boot camp�up at 4:30 a.m., calisthenics, school, counseling�is the easy part. What follows is six months to a year of gun court probation, longer if there are violations. The first month is spent wearing an electronic ankle bracelet under house arrest, except for school. A mandatory gun court parenting class is held on six evenings over six weeks. Attendance is mandatory. Failure to attend could result in a parent being jailed after a hearing to show cause. “That hasn’t happened in a long time,” said Sparks. “In my experience, I’ve found parents will do whatever it takes to help their kids.” After the first month, curfew is at 6 p.m. and may eventually be extended to 9 p.m. Unannounced visits by a probation officer occur at least twice a week. Probationers have to call tracking officers twice every evening and come back to court often, every week at first, where the judge or a referee hears about their progress. The probationers are drug-tested for from 30 to 120 days, or longer if there’s a test failure. And probationers have to obey all laws and rules, wherever they are�home, church or school. Violators are rearrested and can be incarcerated for progressively longer stays if they don’t get with the program. And probation can be extended until the age of 17. But “most of the kids do a really good job,” Sparks said. “Many finish high school or get G.E.D.s Some go on to college-we send them to counselors; we get them help with the paperwork.” But a University of Chicago Law School professor questions the court’s process. “You’re going to get good results if you have someone in a carceral jacket,” said Bernard Harcourt, who has studied gun possession by youths. “So the question is whether we can substitute more healthy parental and adult supervision, interaction and education for the degrading elements of urine tests and ankle bracelets,” he said. “We won’t know until we try it.” Other states, swift justice Adult courts in three of the five boroughs of New York City and in Rhode Island deal out swift justice, too, and the consequences are also consistent�but are far more severe. Brooklyn’s gun court, which began about a year ago, was New York’s first. It has handled only gun possession cases. It is the brainchild of John Feinblatt, the city’s criminal justice coordinator. Five percent of the precincts in Brooklyn accounted for 50% of the gun arrests in Brooklyn and 25% of the gun arrests in the entire city, Feinblatt said. “There’s no greater threat to public safety than people who carry guns,” he asserted. “And there’s no better way to send a clear and unequivocal message to those who carry guns that we are going to focus our best police, prosecutorial and judicial resources on them.” Brooklyn has assigned three prosecutors to the court. Amy Feinstein, the chief assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, laid out the office’s straightforward approach: A one-year sentence if there’s no prior felony; a determinate sentence of five to seven years if there’s a prior violent felony; and three to seven years if the prior felony is nonviolent. “Very few people will get probation over our objection,” said Feinstein. And it’s “unusual for us to bargain in these cases.” The New York gun program expanded into the Bronx and Queens. As an example of the court’s accomplishments, Feinblatt said that before the dedicated court, there was a 78% incarceration rate for offenders with no prior felony. Now it’s up to 97%. The median jail time was 90 days, and is now one year. Harcourt takes aim at the Brooklyn gun court’s approach, too. “Hardly exercising discretion�or ‘one size fits all’�takes the concept of ‘justice’ out of our justice system.” In 1994, Rhode Island created the first gun court in the nation. Its goal was to shorten the time it takes to adjudicate any crime involving the use or possession of a firearm and to ensure a certain prospect of prison for those convicted. Since then, the time to dispose of these kinds of cases has fallen to 155 days from 518 days. Post’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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