Defendants On Minor Charges Can Wipe Criminal Slate Clean By Doing Community Work
November 25, 2005
By STEPHANIE REITZ, Courant Staff Writer
Camille White and Aieshia Baldwin, both in ponytails and thick winter jackets, stood quietly Wednesday in Hartford Community Court as a prosecutor detailed the shoplifting charges against them.
Browsing in Filene's at Westfarms mall on a recent Friday night, the young women picked out a few pieces of jewelry, discarded the price tags and tried to leave with the hidden items, the prosecutor told Judge Jorge A. Simon.
Baldwin, 18, and White, 19, are both college students from New Haven, juggling jobs and school, with no criminal records. Both readily admitted their actions to the store's security personnel when confronted, turning over $216 in stolen jewelry.
And both were ready Wednesday to admit their guilt to Simon and pay the price - a plea deal for two days of community service that will have them doing anything from shoveling snow to loading food bank donation vans.
When they finish, they will get a fresh start: The incident will be wiped off their records permanently.
"It's the best thing for me," Baldwin said.
Their cases are among the dozens of nonviolent, largely nuisance crimes that Simon handles each day in Community Court, which has evolved in its seven years from a social experiment into a nationwide model.
And, while it is one of the busiest courts in the state, it is - by staid judicial standards - a bit of an oddity.
The prosecutor brags that his conviction record is, by far, the state's worst.
Defendants' children suck on lollipops handed out by one of the judicial marshals.
And people who let their cellphones ring in court see them confiscated by Simon, an espresso connoisseur who turns over errant phones to groups that supply them to senior citizens to call 911 unless the owner ponies up a donation to charity.
Here, bringing a checkbook or wad of cash is useless. There are no fines. Instead, defendants perform supervised community service throughout Hartford ranging from cleaning gutters to sweeping leaves.
"We tell people that we don't take fines because we don't want your money - we want your time," said Assistant State's Attorney Glenn M. Kaas, who counts his success by the number of plea agreements reached and views each rare conviction as a missed opportunity to help the offender and the community.
"Our philosophy is that if someone has harmed the community by their activity, we want them to give back to the community," he said.
For all of its quirkiness, supporters say, the Hartford Community Court has shown over the past seven years that a balance can be struck between holding people accountable for their offenses and helping the neighborhoods in which those offenses occurred.
"I think most people would rather see us give some type of treatment or help to them than to just put them right in jail," Simon said, although he also does not hesitate to transfer a multiple offender's case to the Superior Court when he or she refuses to comply.
"It's a misconception that community courts are soft on crime," Simon said. "In reality, they are tougher and more responsive to crime because each case will be addressed and each person has access to resources to improve their lives."
The court's caseload ranges from nonviolent nuisance crimes such as loitering and trespassing up to arrests for first-time marijuana possession, prostitution and interfering with a police officer. An estimated 98 percent of the people who appear in Community Court plead guilty and accept the community service deal, according to court figures.
The conviction is cleared from their record if they complete the court-ordered community service, donate to charity, adhere to parents' curfews, accept help for substance abuse, or meet the terms of many other creative solutions brokered by the court's sole prosecutor, public defender and judge.
"Thank God for that Community Court," said Hyacinth Yennie, a longtime resident and city activist in Hartford's South End. "It's really helping address some of the crimes that had become such a nuisance. We felt like we were tearing our hair out before this."
The court has also helped relieve pressure at Superior Court, across the street.
More than 53,000 nonviolent misdemeanor cases and summonses have been handled at the Community Court since it opened in 1998. If not for the Community Court, those cases would have been adjudicated in Superior Court, squeezed in among the assaults, rapes, murders and other serious cases already handled in that busy courthouse.
The Community Court was the third of its kind set up in the United States, following the examples of the flagship Midtown Community Court in Manhattan and another court in Portland, Ore. Court administrators from throughout the country have visited Hartford to watch its court in action, and federal justice officials cite it as an example for cities and states interested in setting up their own community courts.
Several dozen such courts now operate around the country, including a part-time community court in Waterbury.
Simon, the second judge to head the Community Court in Hartford, called it a unique balance of delivering justice to society and aiding individuals who need it.
"The idea is to use the authority of the court to move people from Point A to Point B, and in the course thereof, to benefit the community," Simon said.
The court's atmosphere is largely casual as each defendant is called up and Kaas, the prosecutor, describes the offense, progress on court-ordered treatments and the terms of community service the defendant has agreed to serve.
Well-dressed suburbanites with expensive lawyers often sit shoulder to shoulder in the courtroom with homeless drug addicts and prostitutes. About two of every three defendants are from Hartford, while the rest live in surrounding towns.
Wilberto Rivera, 21, who described himself as homeless, tried to explain to Simon in court on a recent morning why he kept returning many evenings to hang out near 51 Babcock St. in Hartford's North End, despite officers' repeated warnings.
On the night of his most recent arrest, he tried to run away when he saw officers coming toward him. Charged with trespassing and interfering with an officer, Rivera received five days of community service and another referral from Simon to social services.
Rivera's explanation for the repeated trespassing incidents was simple, but sad: He hung around Babcock Street because he and his girlfriend share a child who sleeps each night at an apartment in the three-family house.
"We don't have a steady place to stay, you know what I mean?" Rivera told Simon, "so our baby stays there at night and is with us during the day."
Several police officials in Greater Hartford said they like the community court because it ensures the offenders will be held accountable, and because it provides social services to people such as Rivera who need help.
Women who come to the court on prostitution arrests are referred to a special program to help them break free. People with drug addictions, mental-health issues or other problems are escorted across the hallway to state and local social-service workers.
"For those folks whose crimes were not very serious, community court gives them another bite at the apple, so to speak," said departing Avon Police Chief Peter Agnesi, whose agency is among six municipal police departments that send their minor offenders to Community Court in Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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