Trial By a Jury of Your Neighbors

By Joe Gratz

En Español.

Starting soon, shoplifters, petty thieves, public urinators, graffiti generators, drug possessors, Sit/Lie violators and general disturbers of the peace who are arrested in the Mission will have the choice of being tried by a panel of neighborhood residents inside a community center instead of a judge or a jury in a courthouse.

“This is an attempt to deal with a broken system,” said District Attorney George Gascón at a press conference held at Mission Police Station. Those arrested for petty crimes have a 70 percent recidivism rate, Gascón told the assembled crowd. “Would you buy a car if the dealer told you there is a 70 percent chance it will fail?”

So, to continue the metaphor, community court will be the equivalent of buying a cheaper car and seeing if it breaks down as often. As the city continues to stare down the barrel of a $360 million budget deficit, community courts — which have operated in San Francisco since 1998 but have never been tried on this wide a scale — become appealing.

A case tried in criminal court costs about $1,500, Gascón said. A community court trial costs about $300, mostly to cover the upkeep of the city’s database of contracts with rehabilitation facilities and other reintegration organizations. In the course of the next six months, the city expects to save $1.5 million by ramping up its community court system.

Community courts are also expected to save time, since defendants are tried by a panel of neighborhood volunteers instead of a jury. Volunteering involves filling out a questionnaire at the DA’s office and completing an eight-hour training.

This is good news for people who are reluctant to serve on juries in minor criminal cases, said Maurie Lees, a Potrero Hill resident and community court activist. “I was picked to do jury duty for a shoplifting case at Safeway,” said Lees. “I was furious.”

When someone is arrested for a crime that qualifies for community court, they can choose either that or a criminal trial. They’ll have a court-appointed lawyer and prosecutor from the DA’s office in both cases, but a conviction by a community court will be different — since it’s not a criminal conviction, it won’t show up on a criminal record.

That means offenders may find it easier to get a job after carrying out their sentence, a factor that is believed to reduce recidivism. Community court punishments usually consist of some combination of volunteering, entry into a drug rehabilitation program, community service or listening to the victim talk about how the crime affected them.

A large number of community trials in the Mission are expected to be drug-related. Prostitution cases will also be referred to the community court, which the DA’s office believes will help women by directing them to resources rather than prison.

Those who fail to comply with the community courts’ rulings will be forced to go through the criminal court process, according to Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Prozan.

How will this play out? It’s hard to say. While criminal trials are open to the public, and by extension journalists, community court cases are not.

It’s a privacy concern, said Prozan. “The District Attorney is trying to change that.”

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