For people charged with even a relatively minor crime, their day in court can be a life changing experience, a moment when their path might lead to salvation or a painful series of stumbling steps to personal doom.
It can be a confusing and bewildering moment, because fear and lack of opportunities for redemption aren’t always possible, and the legal system often seems stacked against them. Many of those charged cannot afford bail, have no job or place to live, and no one to turn to for real answers on how to solve the problems they face. Often the crimes they commit are tied to more serious personal problems such as drug addiction or depression. People who might otherwise be saved with a little intervention might wind up in jail, and on the path to a life of repeated incarceration.
A year ago, Jersey City began a plan to establish a new kind of court in which some of these issues might be resolved. The program started as a pilot last fall, and has proven so successful the city decided in January to implement it as part of its municipal court system.
Called Jersey City Community Solutions, this community court offers an alternative to the traditional justice system and provides for solutions to the root causes of a crime, while still initiating appropriate punishment to the wrongdoer.
The program offers alternative sentencing for low-level offenders in an effort to hold them accountable while reducing the likelihood that they will continue the behavior that might lead to more serious crimes in the future.
“The program also looks to help address the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior.” – Mayor Steven Fulop
Reducing repeat offenses
Originally developed in the 1990s in other parts of the country, the program has a very successful track record in reducing recidivism.
Community courts take a problem solving and community-focused approach to criminal justice, combining appropriate punishment as well as help.
“These do not involve violent crimes,” said Municipal Judge Cynthia Jackson, when she helped establish the program in Jersey City last year. “These cases come out of the municipal court, not the Superior Court.”
Eligible program participants undergo a needs assessment, attend recommended social services, and must engage in restorative community service projects which serve as meaningful sanctions for their offenses.
Some of the community service can include cleaning up a city park or painting over graffiti. Social services provided to them can include drug treatment or mental health counseling.
While these cases involve lesser crimes, they can often indicate future problems, officials said.
“The program also looks to help address the underlying issues that contribute to criminal behavior,” said Mayor Steven Fulop.
Jackson said community courts focus on the individual involved and seek to find an appropriate response. The program is voluntary. If a person refuses to take part, he or she then goes onto to a more conventional court for trial.
During the pilot period, the court was able to tap into a number of collaborating institutions to develop opportunities for community service, such as food pantries, senior care organizations, the city’s Department of Public Works.
Compliance is closely-monitored by the program staff.
Since implemented in Jersey City, 45 percent of the participants successfully completed the program, officials said.
One participant in the program who wished to remain anonymous said, “JCCS is a program that helps you with problems. If you get into a situation where you don’t know the outcome of it, this gives you a choice. You can do some volunteer work and social work. They help you as long as you help yourself.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.