By Josue Monroy
SANTA CRUZ – The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office has unveiled a new neighborhood court program designed to refer low-level misdemeanor offenses to a community-based panel that will provide a restorative justice alternative to typical criminal proceedings.
Participation is voluntary for both the offender and victim, addressing the needs of those involved, and the community as a whole.
The Santa Cruz Neighborhood Court is set to debut in December, and is a volunteer-driven endeavor in partnership with the Santa Cruz County DA and the County Board of Supervisors, with support from law enforcement departments countywide.
The program is spearheaded by Program Coordinator Elaine Johnson, an attorney who is also on the Board of Directors for the Women Lawyers of Santa Cruz County. She has been working with the DA’s office to develop the program.
In one of four virtual townhalls last Thursday, Johnson and a panel that included District Attorney Jeff Rosell , Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills, and UC Santa Cruz Police Chief Nader Oweis engaged with the community to detail the plan.
According to Johnson, the program goes beyond traditional criminal justice approaches that focus on what laws were broken and what punishments are to be doled out. Instead, the focus is on the individuals involved.
“In the Neighborhood Courts Program, we use restorative justice principles. We look at what harm was done, what are the needs of the people involved, and how can that harm be repaired,” Johnson said.
Eligible cases will be diverted from the DA’s office into the neighborhood courts. There are set to be multiple courts based in cities across the county, including Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Capitola, and Watsonville.
The court functions through a set of volunteer panelists, the offender, and the victim (if applicable). There are no judges, juries, or attorneys present for these conferences. The goal is for the community to address the harm that was done in the commission of the crime, and to discuss the root causes that led to the offender engaging in that act.
Together, the community and offender will then develop directives for the offender to complete, and once completed, the case will be dismissed and will not appear on their record. The program is open to first-time offenders only. Failure to comply will see the case referred back to the DA.
Community volunteers are required to undergo 15 hours of training, and are expected to participate in one conference per week. Volunteers will sign on for a two-year commitment, with students required to serve only one.
The program will initially focus on low-level misdemeanors that include petty theft, drug and drug paraphernalia possession, receipt of stolen property, possession of burglary tools, misdemeanor assault and battery, shoplifting, vandalism, trespassing, disorderly conduct and drunk in public.
District Attorney Rosell voiced his support for the initiative, viewing it as an important opportunity for the community at large.
“This really is a chance for the community to take some responsibility and take an active role in the criminal justice system,” Rosell stated. “This is really community-driven restorative justice.”
The District Attorney’s office sees this as a way to reduce incarceration and give first-time offenders a second chance.
Chief Mills echoed that sentiment, and noted the financial burden that trying and incarcerating these offenders was unnecessary.
“Nobody wants to pay for low-level offenses being in the jail. I think the evidence would show that [a] restorative justice model is far better, more successful. We’re looking forward to participating in it fully,” Mills said.
UC Santa Cruz already has a restorative justice program, according to UCSC Police Chief Oweis. He argues that the program gives victims a voice.
“It’s truly a great way to reduce harm. But really what it does is it potentially gives a voice to those that have been harmed, and allows them to express the impact that it has had on them,” said Oweis.
He referenced a similar program in Yolo County that began in 2013, which also focused on a restorative justice approach to low-level offenses, and included UC Davis as the pilot program. UCSC PD has modeled their approach after that program.
According to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, its program has diverted more than 2,000 cases, with a 90 percent directive completion rate.
Programs like neighborhood courts are part of the larger initiatives stemming from the passing of Prop. 47 in 2014, which reduced low-level felonies to misdemeanors.
The Coordinated Access for Empowering Success (CAFES) program awards grants to diversion and re-entry services to prevent unnecessary engagement in the justice system, and reduce recidivism for those already system involved, while improving the health and well-being of adults who have committed low level crimes (non-strikes), according to their website.
In detailing the types of directives offenders will be required to fulfill, Johnson emphasized that these would be tailored to the individual’s circumstances, as well as to the overall well-being of the victim and community.
“We’re not going to set up somebody in something that’s not meaningful for them. We want to make sure they are successful in the program,” said Johnson.
Some options that were floated by her included letters of apology, drug rehabilitation, and anger management classes. The victim will also be able to help in developing the directives, if they choose.
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