Each year, the Davis and UC Davis police departments collectively issue more than 1,000 citations for low-level misdemeanors and infractions, sparking a process that can result in multiple court hearings and costly legal fees. Starting next week, however, some of those incidents will be handled quite differently.
In those cases, the offenders will receive yellow slips of paper inviting them to participate in Neighborhood Court, a diversion program launched by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office in which certain misdeeds are addressed in confidential hearings involving the perpetrator, the victim and a trained panel of local citizens, rather than through the traditional court system.
Offered both in the city of Davis and at UCD, the program will be only the second of its kind in California. Inspired by a similar initiative launched two years ago in San Francisco, Neighborhood Court is based on the concept of “restorative justice” — focusing on the needs of the victim, the offender and the community, all of whom take an active role in repairing the harm.
“It’s a radically different approach to dealing with low-level crimes,” District Attorney Jeff Reisig said in a recent interview.
Neighborhood Court is designed for first-time adult offenders of what Davis Police Chief Landy Black calls “quality of life” violations, such as noise complaints, some alcohol-related misdemeanors and infractions, petty theft, property damage and public urination, to name a few of the roughly 20 offenses that qualify.
“These situations will be resolved quickly,” Black said, rather than take weeks or even months to work their way through the courts. City cops begin handing out the yellow “tickets” — Black calls them “advice and election cards” — on Wednesday, while UCD police got started during last Saturday’s Picnic Day festivities.
Each case must meet certain criteria to be eligible for Neighborhood Court. In addition to involving a low-level crime that’s not a repeat offense, both the victim and the offender must agree to participate, and the offender can’t use the forum to contest his or her guilt.
“They’re essentially admitting they did the crime, and now they’re making it right,” Reisig said. “They’re accepting responsibility.”
Working cooperatively, the victim, offender and citizens’ panel create an agreement that is tailored to reflect the harm that was caused. Possible outcomes could include community service, counseling, or something as simple as a letter of apology from the offender to the victim.
In San Francisco, the program has grown to include 10 neighborhood court panels throughout the city, which collectively handled nearly 700 cases last year.
Neighborhood Court has the potential for removing hundreds of cases from the Yolo court docket as well, though Reisig stressed that’s not the driving force behind the program. While the victim is made whole, the offender also benefits by avoiding the time-consuming and expensive process of going to court, as well as the stigma of a conviction on their record.
“It’s not about shaming the offenders,” Reisig said. “It’s about treating them with respect and dignity, but also making sure there’s an awareness of the harm the behavior has caused.”
Reisig said he recently attended one Neighborhood Court session in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood in which the offender, an out-of-town visitor, had been caught urinating in a public park. After offering an explanation for his offense and hearing first-hand its impacts on the park’s neighbors, the man contributed to the community by volunteering at a local homeless shelter.
“It takes the focus off of punishment and puts it back on restoration,” potentially reducing recidivism rates too, Black said. “This is the sort of thing that really fits Davis.”
UCD Police Chief Matt Carmichael agreed. He said his officers handed out about a dozen of the yellow Neighborhood Court “tickets” on Picnic Day, mostly for alcohol-related offenses such as public intoxication and open containers.
“Our community’s extremely excited about the potential of Neighborhood Court and restorative justice,” Carmichael said. “We have support from all members of the community.”
If successful, the program could branch out to other Yolo County communities, Reisig said.
The DA’s Office is currently recruiting volunteers from Davis to serve on the neighborhood panels, who will receive 20 hours of formal training in restorative justice, problem-solving and cultural sensitivity issues, Reisig said. Participants should be prepared to commit one or two hearings per month, with each session lasting four to six hours.
Each panel will comprise anywhere from two to five citizens, who will receive guidance from a neutral facilitator extensively trained in mediation.
A diverse cross-section of the community, including residents, business owners, students and retirees are encouraged to apply. For more information, visit www.yoloda.org, call 530-681-6323 or email [email protected]
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene