KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 20, 2019 – Community courts have been a popular form of criminal justice reform over the last 25 years. These courts prosecute low-level crimes in hopes of safe-guarding quality of life in a community while also dispensing a more emotional, less detached brand of justice that focuses on rehabilitation.
But how is the reform working?
In her debut book, Courting the Community: Legitimacy and Punishment in a Community Court, University of Rhode Island Professor Christine Zozula provides the first behind-the-scenes look into community courts by a person outside of community court advocacy. Courting the Community explores the prosecution of quality-of-life crimes, the workings of individualized justice in community courts and how criminal justice reforms may not deliver on all they promise.
“With all the research I did for this book, I am very critical of the community court model. I don’t think it does what it’s intended to do,” says Zozula, an associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences whose research focuses on the practical and cultural processes of punishment. “But I also understand that a lot of the people who I met at the court were doing what they think is right. They have very noble goals and are working within a system that is inherently punitive no matter how much they try to make it more rehabilitative.”
Community courts, which exclusively handle low-level, quality-of-life crimes, are part of a larger specialized court movement. Over the last three decades, the U.S. has witnessed a proliferation of specialized courts to address such societal problems as drugs, domestic violence, gambling, guns, homelessness and truancy. The first community court in the U.S. opened in Midtown Manhattan in 1993. Today, there are about 70 of the courts in the U.S. dealing with crimes such as littering, disorderly conduct, noise disturbance, underage drinking, and prostitution.
The community court model explicitly draws from such criminal justice philosophies as “broken-windows theory,” which contends that the policing and punishment of small crimes prevents more serious offenses, and “therapeutic jurisprudence,” in which punishment focuses on rehabilitation over jail time, Zozula says.
“One of the reasons I think the community court movement is appealing is broken-windows theory,” says Zozula. “In the book, I call it the ‘stop drinking soda and lose 10 pounds in two months plan’ to crime prevention. Another reason the courts are appealing is because of the flexibility afforded in the model. The courts can claim to be both tough on crime and really trying to help defendants. That way, they’re able to make legitimacy claims to lots of different groups.
“Also, every outcome can be seen as a success. If I come in for a public drunkenness charge, I go to AA and I’m supervised for three months, and then you expunge my case, that’s a success. If I fail to follow my ordered treatment and I don’t show up for court and I go to jail, that’s a success. Everything that could possibly happen at a community court helps legitimize it.”
Zozula started researching community courts while an undergraduate at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. She was looking for an internship and her anthropology professor suggested Midtown Community Court. She carried that interest to graduate school at the University of Connecticut.
Over 11 months, between 2005 and 2008, Zozula followed the workings of “Greenville Community Court” – a pseudonym – sitting through court sessions and interviewing participants and community members to get a larger understanding of the system. In Courting the Community, published by Temple University Press, she documents daily case processing at the court, exploring how punishment and treatment work to legitimize the community court model.
Like other community courts, Greenville followed a model of providing individualized justice in a non-adversarial way. One judge oversaw the court docket, allowing defendants to build a relationship with the judge to reach a plea agreement, Zozula says. Defendants often would be sentenced to counseling or community service.
If defendants failed to comply with their court agreement, they would face jail time. The problem, says Zozula, was that defendants were jailed not for their original crime, but for their lack of accountability in following their ordered counseling.
For example, a defendant arrested for public drunkenness or a drug offense would initially be seen as having a substance problem. Instead of punishing him for his problem, the court would order three months of treatment, dismissing the charge when treatment was completed. But if the defendant failed to go to treatment or relapsed, he would be sentenced to jail.
“It’s striking to me that community courts so quickly shift from ‘you have an issue that can be fixed’ to ‘you didn’t fix the issue, so clearly you should go to jail.’”
Another problem arose when judges repeatedly continued orders for counseling, wrapping the defendant in court supervision for long periods for low-level offenses.
“There’s been a whole lot of work recently on what’s called administrative justice that looks at traditional criminal justice structures such as probation,” says Zozula. “It shows how people get caught up for very lengthy periods of court supervision for low-level things without ever being sentenced.”
In evaluation studies of community courts, respondents have perceived the courts to be legitimate, Zozula says. Beyond that, she adds, the results are mixed. Studies show no clear evidence that the courts reduce recidivism or decrease quality-of-life crimes, she says, and none that prosecuting low-level crimes improve quality of life in the court’s jurisdiction.
“We are often sold criminal justice reforms,” she says. “I hope that people take away from my book that we have to be cautious about what the goals of these purposed reforms are and how we’re going to hold those goals accountable.”