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In Courtroom 115 in D.C. Superior Court, Magistrate Judge Michael McCarthy’s tone is tough as he lectures a man in his mid-20s with long dreadlocks flowing down his back. “I don’t want to see you a third time in here, or else you’ll be in lockup for five to seven days for driving without a permit,” McCarthy tells the man. “The government will go forward with a trial. I don’t think you want to be in lockup for seven days, all for driving without a permit. Do you understand?” The man nods. “I can’t hear you,” McCarthy says sternly in his thick Boston accent. “Yes, sir,” the man quickly responds as McCarthy orders him to pay $50 and get a valid permit within 60 days. The penalty might not sound like much — considering that the man could receive jail time for getting caught again. But this is Washington, D.C.’s community court, where defendants charged with lesser offenses get a chance to turn themselves around. For nearly two years, McCarthy has been the presiding judge of the D.C. Misdemeanor and Traffic Community Court, one of two community courts opened by Superior Court five years ago. McCarthy, 65, sees his role as that of a father. He’s strict and no-nonsense, and when he talks, defendants get nervous. McCarthy says he believes that D.C. misdemeanor cases that come before him, such as driving while intoxicated and driving without a permit, are signs of larger social problems. He uses the community court as a venue to reach out to offenders from the bench. Although some may not think it’s appropriate, he says, he doesn’t care what the critics say. Having the opportunity to talk to defendants is one reason he decided to run this court in the first place. It’s also why, he reveals, he’s requesting to stay on another year as presiding judge of the court. “Most of these people just need someone to talk to them,” McCarthy says. “I might be harsh on the bench, but beneath this black robe is a guy who is really soft and cares.” FOLLOWING THE NEW YORK MODEL McCarthy’s court and the East of the River Community Court, which handles more serious misdemeanor cases in Southeast Washington, have a mission that skews the traditional role of courts by trying to address the problems that lead people to commit crimes. It’s an approach that judges, prosecutors, and some defense lawyers see as a way to help restore communities. It is also an effort to save money. By quickly resolving minor criminal cases that inundate the court system, the District hopes to spend less money on lawyers, police, and other criminal justice agencies. D.C.’s community court system, modeled after a program in New York state, offers diversion programs, ranging from mediation and community service to alcohol counseling and referrals to social service programs. If defendants don’t comply with the judge’s order, they risk being sanctioned or having their case transferred to a regular misdemeanor courtroom, where they could face a trial and stiffer penalties. Since their opening in 2002, the courts have faced criticism. Some defense attorneys say the traditional adversarial role of defense counsel has been replaced by a more complacent one — one that forces defendants who agree to the community court process to acquiesce to prosecutors and the court. Offenders must either plead guilty or opt for a trial. In many cases, when a defendant successfully completes a diversion program, the case is closed. There have also been questions raised about whether some of the penalties levied upon defendants are too lenient. And because the court does not track what percentage of the offenders are returning to the court system, there is no way to quantify if the community court is really having an effect on crime. “It’s a good, goal-oriented court, but it’s time to go back and get the infrastructure in place, including the data collection,” says June Kress, executive director of the Council for Court Excellence, a nonprofit group that was paid by the D.C. Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in 2005 to assess the performance of the court. “Lack of data is a real challenge in community court,” says Kress. “You have to have data to show that the court is making a difference, and they are not there yet.” D.C. court officials say tracking the community courts’ recidivism rate has not been a priority because the program is fairly new. It expects to have a system to track offenders next year, says Michael Francis, coordinator for the D.C. community courts. McCarthy says that, while tracking the numbers systematically has been a concern, he wouldn’t rely just on figures. “There are stats that we keep, and we’re working on a system to analyze those numbers,” McCarthy says. “But I’ve never been a stats kind of guy. All you have to do is look at the faces of the people in the courtroom to see that we’re a success. “ Judge Ann O’Regan Keary, presiding judge in the East of the River Community Court, echoes McCarthy. “We do have the data; we just haven’t analyzed it yet,” Keary says. Keary says she has been relying on feedback from residents at town hall meetings. Court officials estimate that about 80 percent of the defendants who come through East of the River each year comply with their diversion programs. “The community feels that we are having a positive impact,” Keary says. CLEANING UP LIVES AND TRASH So far, defendants in McCarthy’s court have performed about 38,000 hours of community service in the District’s downtown Business Improvement District, wearing orange vests that identify them as part of the Superior Court cleanup crew as they pick up trash from the streets, McCarthy says. About 270 people have gone through the court’s next-day community service program, which began in August 2006. Defendants in the program are required to perform their service the day after their hearing, he says. “What you see through this program is that people are really cleaning up their lives,” McCarthy says. According to the court, the community service hours performed by defendants through the community courts since 2003 have saved the District about $310,000 in street-cleaning costs. (The court calculated this number from the number of hours served and D.C. minimum wage rates.) In its assessment of the D.C. Misdemeanor and Traffic Community Court, the Council for Court Excellence found that the court disposes of cases quickly but that the community service program may not be serving its intended purpose of restoring communities. Defendants clean up in the city’s business district rather than the area where the crimes were committed. McCarthy says that because his court (unlike the East of the River Community Court) serves defendants from throughout the District, the business district is the only area where defendants are required to work. He says he doesn’t expect that to change. The council found that the court was limited in its rehabilitative capacity. One recommendation was to have Superior Court add more social workers to the court to identify the needs of defendants and provide them with alcohol, drug, or mental health referrals. Currently, McCarthy says, defendants are referred to Alcoholics Anonymous and a program called the Anacostia Mentoring and Employment Network. LOOKING EAST The East of the River Community Court was created in response to growing rates of crime and poverty in communities east of the Anacostia River, in Southeast Washington. The goal of the court was to also to speed up the processing of misdemeanor cases in order to reduce police overtime. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District reviews cases, identifies defendants whose criminal history is not of a serious or violent nature, and refers them to East of the River to help address the root of their behavior, Keary says. The court, which works in partnership with other agencies such as the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, and the D.C. Department of Mental Health Services, handles misdemeanors more serious than those that pass through McCarthy’s court, such as prostitution and drug dealing. In its first year, the court processed 1,364 defendants. It has been looking at ways to establish the community courts’ recidivism rate. Keary, who has presided over the court for three years, says she sees about 1,100 to 1,500 cases and between 800 and 900 defendants each year. Her entire calendar consists of community court cases. Referring offenders to drug and other substance abuse treatment is one way the community court helps them steer away from criminal involvement. But some attorneys whose clients are ordered to receive services from agencies outside the courthouse complain that their clients sometimes lose focus. “If the judge tells my client to get services from an agency that may be across the street or someplace else, a client might leave the courtroom and get distracted and may not end up there,” says Ada Chan, a defense attorney who handles only East of the River cases. To combat that problem, the court last week opened its first on-site center where offenders can get social services within the court building. The court cleared out a jury room and a witness room to make way for employees from the D.C. Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration, the D.C. Department of Employment Services, and an urgent care clinic. As a result, services are available for defendants as soon as they walk out of the courtroom, says community court coordinator Francis. For Tammy Jacques’ clients, drug treatment is key. Jacques is one of about 15 defense attorneys who work mainly in D.C.’s community courts. Like Jacques, most of these defense attorneys come from a background in public interest law. She says there is still a lack of drug treatment available for offenders. “The clients really benefit from the diversion programs, but if I had to name one area that needs improvement, it would be more funding for drug treatment,” Jacques says, noting that the funding for treatment programs come from federal grants. Court officials agree with Jacques’ assessment. IMPOSING TREATMENT Despite the courts’ goal of giving offenders opportunities to turn their lives around, some defense lawyers say the community courts also take away a defendant’s right to fight criminal charges. “In community courts and other specialty courts, the defense attorney is working together with judges, treatment managers, prosecutors, and probation officers to provide something they believe is appropriate for defendants, irrespective of what the defendant wants,” says Tamar Meekins, a law professor at Howard University School of Law and former staff attorney for the D.C. Public Defender Service. Meekins, director of Howard Law School’s Clinical Law Center, says the limited number of defense attorneys who handle community court cases on a regular basis often don’t like it when other defense attorneys, such as herself, fill in. She says lawyers who work in the community courts believe that defense lawyers who take an adversarial role might cause delays by making objections during court proceedings. She also says this problem-solving approach could backfire for some defendants. “One of the adverse effects is imposing treatment on a defendant who isn’t ready for treatment, doesn’t want it or need it,” Meekins says. “The court is set up to do it, but the defendants may not be at the right point in their life to get the treatment or be successful in treatment.” Meekins says the D.C. Public Defender Service isn’t involved in community courts because it focuses less on misdemeanors and more on felonies. Lisa Baskerville Greene, deputy chief in the General Crime Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which handles East of the River cases, says the prosecution’s role in working with defense in a nonadversarial role is an advantage for the offender. “We’re hoping that, by doing this, we’re addressing the problem so that the defendants won’t be involved in future criminal activity,” she says. Keary says she understands the concerns some defense lawyers express, but she believes many of them agree with the court’s mission. “Many defense attorneys embrace the community court approach as a helpful alternative to the traditional approach, which is limited to resolution of the one case they are currently handling. This problem-solving approach .�.�. is a more progressive one, and more outcome-oriented,” Keary says. She says she believes the community courts have been working because she has heard people who talk about how their sons, grandsons, and daughters have been helped by the courts’ diversion programs. “I’ve gotten letters from people that say, �You’ve given me back my daughter. She’s off the streets,’” Keary says. “If I’ve impacted the life of one person and their family, that’s sufficient.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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