Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Community Justice?

According to SF Chron columnist C.W.Nevius, Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposal to develop a "community justice center" based on New York's much ballyhooed Midtown Community Court is picking up steam as an answer to persistent offending by aggressive mentally ill homeless people. Nevius' column profiles a particularly frightening assault on a popular police officer in the Castro neighborhood. The homeless man who assaulted her was released from jail on probation after several days, a pattern that continues the course of more than 100 misdemeanor arrests (and two felony arrests) that have resulted in a total of 64 days in jail.

The community justice center model promises to couple the legal threat of punishment with individualized case work oriented toward providing services and long term solutions those whose persistent low level offending undermines the quality of life in the City. While this model is attractive, it remains tied to defining behavior as criminal and its authority to work solutions comes from its power to sanction. While better than a revolving door jail, it remains a strategy of governing through crime. In contrast, a recent and as yet unpublished study of California parolees and their violation behavior suggests a strong negative correlation between parole violations and the existence of drug and mental health treatment resources in proximity. In other words, just the existence of such resources in a community can diminish criminal behavior among a population of people with an existing track record of crimes (I will provide a link as soon as the study is released by its authors).

This suggests that rather than community justice centers, we ought to invest in drug and mental health treatment centers. Once those assets exist, they can be used by parole and probation to provide treatment to offenders with documented needs, but they are not defined by their relationship to the power to criminalize and punish.

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