VOL. 116 | NO. 56 | Thursday, March 21, 2002
Seeing justice at work idea behind community court
By MARY DANDO
The Daily News
Taking justice to the people is one of the goals of District Attorney General Bill Gibbons office.
To this end, a pilot project began in Frayser in February 2000 when Community Court came to the neighborhood.
The court enables judges to hear misdemeanor offenses in the community where the offenses occurred.
In addition to misdemeanors, the court deals with environmental code violations.
Instead of issuing fines, jail sentences or probation, the community court has a choice of "alternative" sentencing, such as requiring those convicted to work on community-based projects designed to repay the community and serve as a deterrent.
"What were trying to do in Frayser is set up a system under which the community sees defendants paying back the community for what they have done," Gibbons said.
Its a concept called "restorative justice" a way of holding defendants accountable, he said.
"It helps restore confidence in the criminal justice system among citizens. They see defendants being held accountable," he said.
Located at 3134-A N. Thomas St., General Sessions Criminal Court judges Joyce Broffitt and Larry Potter preside over dockets in the new court building.
Broffitt hears state misdemeanor offenses while Potter presides over environmental code violations.
The Memphis Environmental Court began under Potter in 1983. In 1991, the Shelby County Environmental Court was established. Potter has been a tireless campaigner in bringing the court to the community.
Broffitt is new to community court. When originally approached, she said she committed to one year but found she really liked what the court offered.
"Anything that can help the community. It helps the defendants, too. Its a benefit to everyone thats involved in it," she said.
The rewards of bringing the court to the Frayser community are palpable.
"The community people seem to really like it, and most of the people sentenced understand why they are being sentenced. From what Ive heard, most of them have done a really good job," she said.
As the crimes are low-key, most offenders can be sentenced to community service, the exceptions getting traditional sentences, she said.
The majority of cases heard in community court are those caught driving with a suspended, revoked or cancelled license, some criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.
"Everything from simple assaults to vandalism. There is a fair amount of driving violations on the docket but thats OK. What were saying and what the people of Frayser see is we want to make sure people in the community are driving legally and driving the way they ought to," Gibbons said.
Sentencing individuals in their own community makes a difference, Broffitt said.
"I think bringing it to the community really makes a difference. The people work harder because quite often people from the community come and sit in. I think they try harder maybe because their peers are there. Theyre around these people a lot more. They know them personally," she said.
The misdemeanor court meets the first and third Wednesday afternoon of each month. For the past five years, Broffitt has been presiding over a full docket of cases Monday through Friday in General Sessions Criminal Court.
In contrast to her work Downtown, she has a lot more time to deal with each person individually.
"I think the defendants realize what good deals they get by doing community service and actually helping the community, too. They also have a break there thats not given in the other courts if they take advantage of it. Their sentences are not nearly as strong as they would be Downtown," she said.
Shelby County Pretrial Services is charged with organizing and monitoring court ordered community service projects. Community services include painting buildings, cleaning up areas and getting rid of weeds and debris.
Individuals ordered to perform community service are required to wear bright orange vests with "Frayser Community Court" printed on it.
"By addressing the kinds of smaller, misdemeanor crimes as well as the environmental code violations, were sending a signal that we basically want to improve the overall conditions in Frayser which in turn will have a ripple effect on more serious crime," Gibbons said.
Individuals found to have outstanding warrants while present at the court are arrested by local law enforcement officers and taken to jail.
Community cooperation is an integral part of the success of the community court.
Lt. Patricia Burnett is in charge of the COACT unit at the Todds Creek mini-precinct in the area.
Memphis Police Department currently has 16 community policing substations throughout the city with more in the planning stages.
Burnett serves on the community court advisory board.
"We always have an officer present for the court, and we work with community organizations and they funnel complaints directly to us," she said.
Having the court conveniently located is better for law enforcement officers who patrol the neighborhood.
"I think the greatest difference is made to the community. We get a greater spirit of cooperation. I believe most people understand the workings of the community court, and they understand that its mainly about compliance. We get a different kind of response when youre cited to community court," she said.
Gibbons sees a huge impact on the Frayser community since the court came into the area.
"Weve seen a lot of changes in Frayser. A lot of properties have been cleaned up and the atmosphere has improved. That in turn has an impact on the overall crime situation," Gibbons said.
Other areas in the city might soon have community courts in place, he said.
Orange Mound and parts of Whitehaven have expressed an interest in having a community court and Millington already has Judge Potter hearing environmental violations, Gibbons said.