I stole this post from the SFBA Area Forum. I thought is was an interesting. Do you think something like this could work here in Sacramento?
Newsom fond of New York court
San Francisco mayor wants to model Midtown Community Court to address quality-of-life issues, starting in Tenderloin district
Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Midtown Community Court Judge Richard M. Weinberg poses i...
(04-29) 04:00 PDT New York - -- He jokingly refers to himself as Manhattan's King of Prostitution. Might as well be the King of Illegal Street Vending, Public Urination, Graffiti, Disorderly Conduct, Subway Fare-beating and Aggressive Panhandling, too.
These are the cases New York Supreme Court Judge Richard Weinberg presides over every weekday at the Midtown Community Court.
At the court -- established in 1993 and credited with helping to transform nearby Times Square from a pit of despair to a neon-bathed tourist playground -- it's the little things that matter.
Weinberg believes New York is the best city in the country -- and nobody better use its streets as a toilet, leap over its subway gates or hawk fake designer handbags to its residents.
"He wants them to know that it's his city not just as a judge, but as a person," said Terry Brostowin, a defense lawyer at the court. "He'll say, 'If you're going to ply your trade, ply it somewhere else. Not in my city.' "
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is known for having the same adoration for his city and believes the Midtown Community Court's first-of-its-kind focus on quality-of-life misdemeanors and infractions could work for San Francisco, too. In late summer or early fall, he plans to open a similar courthouse in the notoriously blighted Tenderloin.
Opponents already are lining up to fight what they call the Poverty Court. They say it will criminalize poor people simply for being poor -- and sleeping on the city's sidewalks, camping in parks and urinating in public.
But Newsom is determined.
"We're fighting against the status quo, and they're fighting for the status quo," he said of his opponents. "I'm not interested in fighting for failure."
A social laboratory
The Midtown Community Court sits on 54th Street, just blocks from the stretch of Broadway where David Letterman tapes the "Late Show" and Oprah Winfrey's production of "The Color Purple" plays to sell-out crowds.
The courthouse runs like a riveting drama itself, and Weinberg -- a large, wisecracking man with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair, an easy laugh and a mischievous twinkle in his eye -- is its star.
Weinberg's court hears about 17,000 cases a year. After passing through metal detectors, defendants -- who must be at least 16 years old -- wait their turn on long, wooden benches. Beforehand, a defense attorney, most often provided by the Legal Aid Society, whisks them upstairs to discuss the evidence and their options.
The judge, defense attorneys, prosecutors and a group of social workers and counselors who work in the courtroom all have access to the defendant's criminal history.
The database also shows whether the defendant struggles with alcohol or drugs, is homeless, unemployed or has some other condition that might contribute to criminal behavior.
To continue, the defendants must plead guilty. If they decline, their case moves to the traditional downtown court. If they do plead guilty, they're most often assigned community service to repay the neighborhood for their offenses -- and social services to address underlying problems. Fines are never part of the sentence, but jail time can be.
In 2005, 72 percent of defendants were sentenced to perform community service or receive assistance -- or both. Eighty-five percent followed through, considered a high figure in criminal justice circles. Eight percent went to jail. Often, the sentences come with a special Weinberg lecture.
A woman arrested for prostitution is sent to health education class. Weinberg tells her the charge will be erased if she stays out of trouble for six months. If she's arrested again, the misdemeanor follows her for life.
"You can't be a doctor, you can't be a lawyer, you can't be a teacher, you can't be a real estate agent," he says. "For a young person, that's a real break -- to get that benefit."
Weinberg says he believes in second chances, but not third, fourth and fifth ones. "I'm a law-and-order judge," he said. "I'm not a bleeding-heart liberal. I don't believe in giving away the store."
After cases are heard, defendants sentenced to community service or social services head upstairs, where they might be assigned to sweep the streets wearing bright blue vests with the Midtown name on the back or stuff envelopes for nonprofit groups.
It is there that defendants are connected to some type of class or counseling -- which, by the way, can be accessed by anybody at Midtown Community Court, even if they weren't arrested for a crime.
The entire process -- from the time of arrest to leaving the courthouse -- often happens within one or two days.
"This place is a social laboratory," Weinberg says. "You get immediate results, and you see the outcome right in front of your face."
No concrete plan
It's unclear how closely Newsom's planned court will mirror the Midtown Community Court. The mayor, who toured the Manhattan court this spring, is still planning and will host a representative from the Manhattan court this week to explain the idea to members of the city's criminal justice system.
He has picked the new court's jurisdiction: 80 square blocks bounded by Van Ness Avenue and Sutter, Second, Harrison and 12th streets. About 80,000 people live in the area. He is eyeing the old Hibernia Bank building on Jones and McAllister, but doubts the city can afford it.
The San Francisco Superior Court must sign off on the plan, which it hasn't. Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn said there's nothing to agree to yet because there's no concrete plan. "We are always ready, willing and able to listen to good ideas about improving criminal justice," he said.
Currently, people cited for quality-of-life infractions in San Francisco are told to show up at the traffic court in 45 days. The citations almost always are thrown out. People charged with misdemeanor offenses are directed to the Hall of Justice, which is clogged with such cases. Newsom calls the system "an abject failure."
In the late 1990s, the District Attorney's Office set up the city's own brand of community courts to deal with quality-of-life crimes. There are now a dozen around the city, including in the Tenderloin and South of Market. But they differ in important ways from New York City's version -- and they have been withering on the vine.
A major difference is they are not run through the Superior Court, and there is no judge. Perhaps as a result, the District Attorney's Office directs almost no cases to the community courts. District Attorney Kamala Harris didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.
Last month, dozens of panel members of San Francisco's community courts sent a letter to Harris asking for more cases to be sent their way. They haven't received a response, they say.
Jeoflin Roh, a panelist for the South of Market community court, said he doesn't understand why Newsom wants to open a new community court rather than strengthen existing ones. "It sounds like the mayor is trying to move in on community courts and maybe even kill them," he said.
"This is a completely different model," Newsom countered. "This is much more enriched, much more comprehensive and will have more of an impact."
Jeff Adachi , San Francisco's elected public defender, whose office represents defendants who can't afford private lawyers, said he has concerns about protecting the constitutional rights of people arrested and brought before a New York-style community court.
"There comes a point," he said, "where efficiency runs afoul of due process."
The New York experience
The building on 54th Street in New York that houses the Midtown Community Court also holds three off-Broadway theaters. Fittingly for a court that deals with public urination, one of the theaters premiered the Tony-award winning musical "Urinetown."
The three police precincts encompassed by the court cover 350 square blocks that stretch from 14th Street north to 59th Street and the Hudson River east to Lexington Avenue. About 200,000 people live there in neighborhoods that include Times Square, Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the area accounted for 43 percent of Manhattan's misdemeanor arrests -- a figure that's dropped to about 30 percent since the court's inception.
In Times Square, prostitutes and hustlers roamed the streets, vandalism was rampant, and drug sales were widespread. "Squeegee men" ripped off drivers by dumping dirty water on their car windows and charging them to clean it up. Litter, graffiti and the stench of urine were everywhere.
Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, "Hell wafted up through the manhole covers."
Businesses suffered, and theaters began shutting down due to poor ticket sales. Those theaters that did survive often converted to adult movie houses.
"The theater district -- like the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street -- is a symbol of this city," Weinberg said. "Our great fear was if you lost the theater district, you'd lose the city. People wouldn't live here, they wouldn't work here, they wouldn't raise their children here."
In response, former Mayor David Dinkins added thousands of police officers to the streets, and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani focused on community policing in which officers pursue perpetrators of less-serious crimes as a way to curb more serious ones.
But as the misdemeanor arrests began piling up, the taxed court system relied on a triage approach. Those who were arrested sometimes received a summons to appear in court 30 days later, during which they could continue perpetrating their crimes. Or, they were sent to jail and soon released with sentences of time served.
The New York State Unified Court System, the city of New York and the Fund for the City of New York, a private nonprofit group, collaborated to open the Midtown Community Court in response.
It costs the city and state $1.7 million, a figure supplemented with private donations from companies including Ford and Merck.
Now, 30 cities around the United States have replicated the court -- including liberal enclaves such as Austin, Texas, and conservative ones, such as Lynchburg, Va.
Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit think tank that works closely with the court, said such programs are popular because they provide politically middle-of-the-road, pragmatic solutions.
"There's a third path," he said. "It says that all crimes should have consequences. ... It's a two-fisted approach: the punishment and the help."
Political opposition builds
Consensus is a long way off in San Francisco.
Newsom said it's frustrating and embarrassing that so much squalor exists so close to the steps of City Hall -- and that people openly flout the laws with no fear of punishment.
"Where's the compassion in allowing someone to slip through the system 50 times and then become a statistic?" he asked.
But homeless advocates see it differently. The Coalition on Homelessness, Supervisor Chris Daly, the city's poet laureate Jack Hirschman, and some sex workers marched through downtown recently to protest the court. "Mayor Newsom, change your mind! Homelessness is not a crime!" about 40 of them chanted. "We want solutions, not prosecutions!"
Daly, whose supervisorial district includes the Tenderloin, spoke at a rally preceding the march and vowed the mayor's court won't move forward.
While the Newsom administration contends it needs only the approval of Superior Court, Daly noted it will need money to operate -- and budget appropriations require the approval of the Board of Supervisors.
"The last time I checked, I was the chair of the budget committee," he said. "In other words, this proposal is dead on arrival."
Daly dismissed the court idea as an election-year ploy to appear tough on homelessness. He isn't pleased he learned about the court through the media, either. "This year, I'm going to teach him the meaning of respect," Daly said.
Opponents of the court have philosophical problems with it, too. They say police should be pursuing the perpetrators of homicides, assaults and robberies -- not arresting people for quality-of-life crimes. Creating more shelter beds and public-housing slots would make a bigger difference, they add.
Juan Prada, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, moved from Manhattan in 2002. He said Times Square is now a veritable Disneyland, filled with chain stores and corporate interests -- and lacking all the poor people who were squeezed out by Giuliani's crackdown.
"It's troublesome and disturbing that a city like San Francisco would choose a hard-core Republican as a model for how to deal with social problems," Prada said.
'Come a long way'
Back in New York, John Wimberly, 63, is homeless and spends each night at a shelter. He spends each day at the Midtown Community Court's job-training program.
It teaches people telephone etiquette, how to create a resume, interviewing skills, how to cope with office politics and how to operate a variety of computer programs. After four weeks, the program aims to get its participants a job. Wimberly hopes to work as a homeless advocate.
"I've come a long way," he said. "You should have seen me when I came here."
He sits up proudly in his seat, points to his attire and says, "Look!" He's wearing a lavender business shirt and a blue tie. A row of pens peeks out of his chest pocket. The court collects business attire from nearby law firms and financial institutions and gives the clothing to class participants.
Wimberly said he recently served 13 months in prison for a "nontheft, nonviolent crime." He's learned to use the phrase in job interviews and leave it at that. In prison, he lost his apartment because he wasn't paying rent, but did work to get his associate's degree in business administration.
He saw a flyer at the homeless shelter about the Midtown Community Court and its job-training program and came to the court on his own to check it out.
"I have a new concept about myself -- I can see a lot clearer now," he said. "My age has no bearing on me getting a job, my incarceration shouldn't have a bearing on me getting a job, and my homelessness shouldn't have a bearing on me getting a job. It's my enthusiasm."