District Attorney George Gascón talks about his office's neighborhood courts system Wednesday morning at Delancy Street Restaurant. Photo by Carly Nairn.

District Attorney George Gascón gave reporters an update Wednesday morning on his office’s 18-month-old Neighborhood Prosecutor Initiative, and announced his plan for a program for juvenile offenders throughout the city.

The initiative aims to curb recidivism and keep nonviolent infractions out of the criminal court system.

Currently there are nine neighborhood courts, each assigned a prosecutor who works with two police districts. Assistant District Attorney Tony Hernandez is the prosecutor for the San Francisco Police Department’s Mission and Park districts.

How the courts work varies from case to case. The system’s 100 volunteer adjudicators are from different backgrounds and include housewives, limousine drivers and concerned citizens with criminal justice backgrounds, according to Lisa Benau, a volunteer adjudicator for the area around Polk Street and Alamo Square.

Adjudicators complete 25 hours of training before they start handling cases. A panel of three or four adjudicators discuss options for an offender based on a determination of eligibility by the neighborhood prosecutor.

To determine an offender’s eligibility, the prosecutor looks at such factors as his or her past behavior and level of remorse, said Katy Miller, the DA’s director of policy and neighborhood prosecutor team leader.

“We like the description ‘professional nudge’ to describe the prosecutor’s role,” she said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It holds everyone accountable.”

Most offenders are involved in nonviolent crimes, such as cab fare evasion, public drinking and vandalism.

“The neighborhood courts are to bring the office close to the community and have the problem-solving on the local level,” Miller said.

One recent case that Benau heard involved a prostitute who had been beaten by her pimp. She sought help from a women’s shelter and was sober from a stint of heroin addiction before she was arrested. The court ruled, according to Benau, that it would be best to keep her out of the criminal court system and decided that she should obtain help and give follow-up reports for one year.

The neighborhood court system does not keep records of the cases it sees on criminal grounds, because the offenders do not obtain criminal records.

The neighborhood courts program was launched at the SFPD’s Mission station in May 2011 and grew to provide courts and prosecutors throughout the city.

The new program for juveniles, which will be modeled after the neighborhood court system, was awarded $200,000 from nonprofit agencies and should be running by spring of next year, according to Miller.

Both the city and offenders have benefited from the neighborhood court system, Gascón said.

The average cost to prosecute a misdemeanor crime in the court system is $1,500, he said, compared to $300 in the neighborhood court system.

Most neighborhood court cases are expedited, to ensure that large numbers of cases are heard. As of this year, 565 cases have been heard, according to Gascón.

Offenders who opt out of the neighborhood court system or fail to comply with the neighborhood court’s recommendations are referred to criminal court.

Both nonviolent and more serious offenders go back to their communities, Gascón said.

“I believe that these people are not going to reoffend,” he said of those who go through the neighborhood court system.

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A Modesto, CA native, Carly has been working in the news industry for the past five years. She has worked with The Portland Mercury as an Arts Intern, The San Francisco Bay Guardian as a News Intern, The Lewis County Chronicle in Centralia, WA as a beat reporter, and was the student opinion editor for her undergraduate newspaper, The Daily Vanguard, for Portland State University, in Portland, Ore. She currently lives in San Francisco, CA.

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  1. I do not understand this sentence:
    “The neighborhood court system doesn’t keep records of the cases it sees on criminal grounds, because the offenders do not obtain criminal records.”
    Does this mean the neighborhood court system doesn’t keep any records so it doesn’t know if the people re-offend? How do we know if the neighborhood is benefiting if there are no records? Is the offender really reporting back for a year, or are there no records of that?