Two thieves, one “John,” a public urinator and a litterer all walk into the Centro Latino Community Center on 15th Street. Two hours later, they all leave.
Nope, there is no punch line. It’s not a joke — it’s the Mission Neighborhood Court in action. The defendants had just appeared before a panel of residents, who exacted justice on those who would otherwise find themselves at the San Francisco Hall of Justice.
Neighborhood courts, a civilian justice tool that’s been tested here since May, are expected to save the city money — a session costs $300, compared to $1,500 for a trial — and reduce recidivism. The courts will be citywide by the end of June, said Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Prozan. An official assessment by independent review won’t be made until sometime between the one- and two-year marks.
So far, the Mission courts have offered a glimpse of how neighborhood courts work. One day earlier this month, all but one of the defendants admitted guilt, the jury of community members was civil to the point of friendliness, and each mini-trial set a different mood.
“This sounds like a musical,” said the second juror on the three-woman panel as they introduced themselves to the first defendant on Dec. 1. No one laughed in the small makeshift courtroom, and she quickly moved on.
Sitting at a long table across from the defendants, the panelists took turns explaining the process to each of the five defendants.
“You can decide at any time to stop and go back to Bryant Street,” one woman said. The young man, arrested for shoplifting a pair of “bionic batting gloves” priced at $37.98, immediately shook his head as if to signal, “No way!”
The vast majority of the 30 to 40 defendants who are processed during the four days a month that the court meets agree: They choose to stay in community court to avoid the Hall of Justice.
After the defendant admitted that the theft of gloves happened just as the police had reported, he explained himself. “It’s cold out. The 99-cent gloves at the liquor store don’t last.”
Neither does the candy they sell, which he said he has also stolen in the past. Now, however, he would stop stealing, mostly because he didn’t want to deal with courts — here or at Bryant Street.
After he left the room for the panel’s deliberation, the women agreed that he didn’t show much remorse. “I think that’s just his style,” one said. He may have won points for honesty, but the panel still assigned him a $125 fine, a letter of apology to the sports store and an eight-hour shoplifting class. His eyes wandered around the room as they broke the news to him.
Next up: urinating in a garage at 24th and Capp streets at 2:24 p.m. on a recent Sunday. The older man explained that he was far from his house and there were no restaurants around. “There’s a McDonald’s right there,” one panelist said. He had no answer for that.
The man agreed that it was wrong. He’d be upset if someone relieved themselves in front of his house.
“He made a bad decision, but I think he understands,” a panelist said during the deliberations, which are closed to the public and open to the press on occasion. The defendant, a Bayview resident, chose to complete four hours of community service in lieu of paying a fine.
Then a rather short, attentive man entered the room and sat next to a middle-aged female interpreter. On July 15, 2011, his friend solicited an undercover officer for sex on the corner of Shotwell and 19th streets. At the time, he said he would like to “buy a woman,” too.
“I didn’t know it was illegal,” said the San Mateo man. The panelists inquired about his marital status. It turns out his wife lives in Mexico. And no, he wouldn’t want his kids to know about this incident.
Sentence: Complete an eight-hour prostitution program priced on a sliding scale. At the defendant’s $15,500 annual salary, he’ll have to pay $350, an amount that one panelist estimated is considerably higher than his attempted date with a prostitute.
“I think for a blow job it’s about $40,” she said to another panelist in a slightly lowered voice. Everyone laughed, briefly.
The panelists — about 100 have been trained since May — stressed the importance of the defendant setting a date and attending the class. “You must attend or you’ll end up with a criminal record. The DA takes these cases very seriously,” one panelist said through the interpreter.
The man left politely, telling everyone, “Gracias.”
The time between the hearing and directive completion is usually about 12 days in the community courts — much shorter than the six to nine months such cases take in traditional courts.
This was good news for the next defendant, who needed to return home in less than a week. The brunette woman in her late 20s would be returning to Spain after completing her internship. She had made some bad decisions in September during a trip to Trader Joe’s.
“Sliced prosciutto, sliced turkey, cream cheese, crumbled feta, cheese dip, spinach, Manchego, hummus, creamy toscano, Belgium butter and fresh” — a pause — “ra-clette?” The panelist sounded out the unfamiliar word.
“It’s cheese,” another said.
With that cleared up, the panel questioned the woman about her seeming dinner party theft.
“I had money, yes. … I can’t explain it,” she said. She went on to say that she’d never stolen before and never would again.
Despite her appearance — in fact, because of it — at least one panelist was unconvinced. “It’s often the ones that you don’t suspect,” the former retail employee said. They all agreed that a good way to show her the repercussions of her actions was to make her spend her last Saturday in the city in shoplifting class. She would also write Trader Joe’s an apology and pay $125.
She left relieved. Since the police wrote her a citation, rather than arresting her, if she fulfills her community court sentence she can honestly tell U.S. officials that she has never been arrested here if she ever applies to re-enter the country.
The court session had a Hollywood ending. The panel heard the last man’s description of his so-called littering on Nov. 21. He said he was waiting for a friend on 23rd Street when he saw a woman on crutches moving in the direction of an empty Tecate can wrapped in a brown paper bag. He picked it up and threw it to the side, which prompted a cop to cite him for littering.
“You know, after this I saw a city worker throw a soda down” on the street, he said with a tinge of reproach.
The deliberation was quick. “I would dismiss it,” said one.
“Woo!” cheered an assistant who was there to help direct the proceedings.
“Me too,” said another panelist, smiling and adding, “yes!”
He came back in to hear the good news and shake everyone’s hand.
“Thank you very much,” he said to the community volunteers before leaving.
Panelists for neighborhood courts must live or work in San Francisco, provide references, and complete approximately 25 hours of restorative justice training. Find out more by contacting Jackson Gee at Jackson.Gee@sfgov.org.