Members of the community could soon have an opportunity to help address quality of life crimes in their neighborhoods as part of the Los Angeles City Attorney Office’s Neighborhood Justice Program.
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer last week announced the launch of the pilot program, which will create a community court in South Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the Harbor area. If the pilot is successful, a community court could be coming to Hollywood.
“This is likely to be, if it continues to grow as we anticipate, the largest effort of its kind in the nation,” Feuer said during a meeting with reporters at his office.
The model calls for violators of quality of life offenses to go before a panel of trained community members, who would determine a fitting way for the individual to make it up to the neighborhood.
For example, if an individual is arrested for graffiti, accepts responsibility and his or her case is handled by a community court, he or she could be tasked with repainting the wall that was vandalized. In return, the court would provide the individual with services and the city attorney’s office will not file charges.
Feuer said that is in contrast to the traditional system, in which an individual is arrested, it takes “awhile” for the system to process the charge and, in the end, the neighborhood may or may not notice the intervention of the justice system. With jails being overcrowded, there is very little consequence as a result, he said.
When he was a member of the Los Angeles City Council, Feuer sought to create a network of community courts, and the city received funding from Congress for two, he said. At the time, he took leaders of the L.A. court system to New York to see their model, which was cutting edge in the 1990s, Feuer said.
“I felt it was really important for members of the community to see the tangible impact of the intervention of the justice system on their quality of life,” he said, adding that a community court in Van Nuys continues to operate “in a skeletal way.”
Feuer said he wanted to build upon those principles of “restorative justice” when he was elected as city attorney. He said restorative justice assumes that the community — not just the victim — has been offended by a quality of life crime, that both the victim and the community should have restored that which was taken by the violator, that the violator should be the beneficiary of services designed to reduce recidivism and that the community should see tangible impacts of the process on the streets.
Feuer said he met with a presiding judge and discussed how to go about creating the system. However, due to the “decimation” of the county’s court system through “devastating” budge cuts, brick and mortar community courts were no longer an option, Feuer said.
“So I wanted to seek an alternative, and I wanted to do so in a larger context,” he said.
Feuer said his office opted to partner with neighborhood-oriented locations that are the “centers of community life.” The goal is to host one panel per week at each location, he said.
The city attorney said the approach has been used in San Francisco, though they are not exactly alike. He said the community court there handles approximately 600 cases per year, and he expects the L.A. version to exceed that figure. The office hopes to handle four cases per session, and court will be in session in the early evening to ensure access.
Panelists, or mediators, will be volunteers from the neighborhood who know the community and have been trained through the office, Feuer said. They will be guided by another mediator who has undergone more extensive training (25 hours) and a staff member from the office, he said. The volunteers will rotate.
Panelists will require one day (eight hours) of training. The office will host training sessions on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. Feuer said he hopes approximately 70 people volunteer. Approximately 40 have signed up thus far.
The city attorney was asked if any potential volunteers expressed concern about retaliation from gang members. Feuer said that he had not heard any such concerns, though they could be voiced during training.
“It’s fascinating,” he said. “There is a real interest in this aspect of what we’re doing. People want to be involved. It’s often thought that L.A. is comprised of people who are sort of apathetic. We see that in our voting patterns, for example. But I don’t see it with this.”
The offenders will have committed a low-level, nonviolent quality of life offense, such as disturbing the peace, vandalism, drinking in public and petty theft — especially those that are perpetrated by young people aged 18 to 25, Feuer said. Minors, however, are not within the office’s juridiction.
He expects the program to go live in October or November. Depending on the success of the program, it will branch out to Hollywood, West Los Angeles and Van Nuys.
He added that the effort has benefited from a $20,000 California Endowment grant. However, the office has not quantified the costs involved, but Feuer hopes the initiative will spark interest from other potential funding sources.
“This is a matter of priority for me,” he said.
Feuer said the office will likely reassess the success of the program within six months and determine how to proceed from there. He said his office will continually monitor and fine-tune the process.
The Neighborhood Justice Program is part of the city attorney’s Community Justice Initiative, which pertains to multiple programs the office has been rolling out in recent weeks. The Neighborhood School Safety Program, in which officials will address issues around school sites, is among them.
“The principle is, we are much stronger as a city if members of the community join in helping solve problems the community confronts,” Feuer added.
For information, call (213)978-8735 or visit atty.lacity.org.
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