Erika D. Smith

The preventive side of criminal justice reform

Where justice in a traditional courtroom is sometimes inconveniently blind, and offenders sometimes get sent to jail even if their crime doesn’t entirely warrant it, the volunteers for Neighborhood Court take a different approach.
Where justice in a traditional courtroom is sometimes inconveniently blind, and offenders sometimes get sent to jail even if their crime doesn’t entirely warrant it, the volunteers for Neighborhood Court take a different approach. Sacramento Bee file

For all of the talk about criminal justice reform in California, the prisoners who’ve been bumped to county jails, the others who have been let out altogether, and the fears about rising crime rates because of it, there are some stories that never get told.

Stories about people who made dumb mistakes but managed to escape the criminal justice system altogether, largely because of this fundamental shift in the way we, as a society, respond to criminal behavior.

But Yolo County is full of these stories. It’s home to a growing, volunteer-based criminal diversion program dubbed Neighborhood Court.

That’s where, one Tuesday evening, I met a young woman who had a hard life.

Only in her early 20s, she had been forced by her mother to drop out of high school to take care of her younger siblings. Now, she was struggling to get ahead in the world with a part-time job with ever-shrinking hours. She burst into tears that evening at the West Sacramento Community Center, not long after explaining why she had decided to steal some items she barely remembered from a Walmart.

She faced jail time if she had been charged. She had a record, another misdemeanor. One more infraction and she knew she would be going back behind bars.

But that’s not how Neighborhood Court works.

Run by Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig’s office, the program lets prosecutors refer people who’ve committed minor crimes to a panel of volunteers for “restorative justice” instead of charging them criminally. The idea is to help offenders, who range from college students to homeless old men, understand the harm they’ve done, take responsibility for it and, if possible, repair it. Sometimes that means community service. Sometimes it’s a bit more.

Where justice in a traditional courtroom is sometimes inconveniently blind, and offenders sometimes get sent to jail even if their crime doesn’t entirely warrant it, the volunteers for Neighborhood Court take a different approach. They want to know the details of offenders’ lives. They listen, sometimes for hours, with tissues in hand.

The first Neighborhood Court started in Davis in the summer of 2013. This year, it expanded to Woodland and, with fits and starts, to West Sacramento. The meetings are all confidential and voluntary. No names leave the room, not even for columns in the newspaper.

On the surface, the whole thing seems rather cheesy. We’re talking about people who are being asked to apologize and then sit through a lecture about why they hurt the community by committing petty theft, engaging in vandalism or being belligerently drunk in public. These people aren’t hardened criminals.

That’s why Neighborhood Court sits firmly obscured in the shadow of Gov. Jerry Brown’s massive public safety realignment, which has reduced California’s prison population by shifting lower-level offenders out of prison and into county-run jails and rehabilitation programs. The same goes for Proposition 47, which turned drug possession and other nonviolent offenses from so-called wobblers that could be charged as felonies or misdemeanors, into misdemeanors.

Restorative justice, particularly when it’s used as part of a diversion program, has its place.

It addresses what too often can become a life-altering run-in with the criminal justice system. People who need a second chance can get one. And stupid mistakes get recognized for what they are – stupid mistakes, not crimes worthy of hefty fines and jail time that can do more harm than good.

Such as the case of the teary-eyed young woman.

Instead of going to jail, she got to go home. The panel of volunteers who heard her story truly came to believe that she was a good person who had lost her way and was on the way toward turning her life around.

Neighborhood Court eagerly gave her the chance.

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