Katie did her best to recall that August night.
The 20-year-old UC Davis student remembered going to a friend’s house and downing multiple shots of tequila “as a stress reliever.” Her next memory was of arriving at a downtown nightclub, where a friend of hers was the bouncer on duty.
“He saw I was really drunk, so he offered to walk me home,” Katie recalled as a panel of three Davis residents listened. “The next thing I remember, I was in the back of a (police) car with my hands handcuffed behind me,” an experience followed by a night in the “drunk tank.”
The police report tells more — how Katie seemed confused about which house was hers, prompting her concerned friend to summon the cops. An expletive-laced confrontation between Katie and the officers ensued, leading to the young woman’s arrest on public intoxication charges.
Not long ago, the arrest likely would have required Katie to hire an attorney and go to court, an expensive and time-consuming process resulting in a lingering criminal record and, some say, no real insight into why Katie committed her alleged crime in the first place.
As a first-time offender, Katie was invited to take part in the Yolo County district attorney’s new Neighborhood Court program, where participants avoid a potential conviction while collaborating with community members to repair the harm they caused.
“They made a mistake, and we’re allowing them an alternative — to take care of it without going to court,” said Chris Bulkeley, the deputy district attorney who oversees the program. The court system benefits as well, with fewer low-level misdemeanors and infractions crowding the docket.
Neighborhood Court is modeled after a similar program initiated several years ago in San Francisco under the concept of “restorative justice” — focusing on the unique needs of the victim, the offender and the community at large.
The hearings, which are confidential, comprise a three-step process: with the help of a facilitator, offenders tell their stories to a panel of local volunteers, who respond by describing how such conduct affects their town’s quality of life. Together, the offender, facilitator and panelists discuss possible methods for restoring the community harm.
“The idea is that if they’re part of the solution, they’re more likely to follow through and less likely to reoffend,” Bulkeley said. “Our program is not designed to be punitive. It’s designed to be restorative.”
District Attorney Jeff Reisig said feedback from the participants so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I sincerely believe that Neighborhood Court is so much more meaningful for the parties,” Reisig said. Community members “are happy to be part of the solution. We’ve totally engaged them in the restorative justice process, and that alone is such a huge benefit of this program.”
UCD Police Chief Matt Carmichael agreed.
“My first take on this is I am absolutely impressed with the level of dedication of the people who are volunteering,” Carmichael said. Reisig “is totally looking out for the needs of the community, and that’s also impressive.”
There are several requirements for taking part in the voluntary program, which so far has focused on Davis-area crimes but is slated to expand into other Yolo County communities. Reisig said West Sacramento will launch its own Neighborhood Court early next year.
First, participants must be first-time offenders. They and the victim — if there is one — must agree to the process, and offenders must acknowledge their wrongdoing before going into the hearing.
“We’re not talking about guilt or innocence. We’re focusing on the harm caused by the conduct,” Bulkeley said.
Alcohol a common factor
Just over 100 hearings have been held since the program got its start in April, with officers handing out yellow Neighborhood Court “tickets” along with their citations. To participate, offenders pay fees ranging from $120 for infractions to $350 for misdemeanors.
Bulkeley said a majority of the hearings have involved so-called “quality of life” crimes, such as public intoxication, noise complaints and vandalism, but are expanding to include more serious offenses such as batteries, thefts and resisting arrest in which a victim is involved.
Many of the offenses share alcohol as a common denominator, which Davis Police Chief Landy Black said has surprised some of the volunteer panelists.
“It highlighted that alcohol was an issue, and they wanted to know how to handle this better,” Black said of the volunteers he has spoken with. Panelists have sought out information about alcohol counseling and other resources that are available to the offenders.
“Many of the issues are longer-term processes — how can we make certain we get them on the right track?” Black said.
In Katie’s case, the restorative agreement called for her to meet with UCD’s alcohol and drug intervention coordinator to identify alternative methods for dealing with stress, particularly during high-pressure periods such as midterms and finals. Katie also offered to write a letter of apology to her arresting officer, along with one of thanks to the bouncer who took care of her.
“This is a really good outcome to this night,” panelist James Cubbage, a UCD employee, told Katie. “There are a lot of potential outcomes to that night that are not pretty. But you’re here with us, and that’s great.”
At another hearing, a UCD graduate who received a noise violation ticket a few months earlier offered to speak to friends who were with her that night about the importance of living peacefully among their neighbors.
“I’m sure people were trying to sleep,” said the woman, who now works in the Bay Area. “I understand — I have to be up at 6 in the morning.”
Many of Neighborhood Court’s participants are UCD students, some of whom may not see themselves as members of the community, “but they are, and one of our goals is to make them understand that,” Bulkeley said. “You have to be considerate of the people around you.”
Volunteer panelist Carlos Matos, a retired substance-abuse therapist for Yolo County, said by delving deeper into their behavior, offenders receive other valuable lessons as well: an understanding of why they committed their crimes, insight into how their actions are perceived by others, and tools to prevent them from happening again.
“This process is a lot better than paying fines and having a record that can affect you for the rest of your life,” he said. “It restores you and it restores the community.”
Local residents, including members of the UCD community, are still being sought to serve as panelists and facilitators for the Neighborhood Court program. For more information, or to apply online, visit www.yoloda.org.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene