Quality of Life and Courts

This week in North Philly Notes, Christine Zozula, author of Courting the Community, reflects on how low-level crimes have big implications for local communities.

In late July of this year, Los Angeles City Council voted to reinstate a city ordinance that made sleeping in vehicles on residential streets, or within a block of schools, parks and daycares a punishable offense. As reported by the LA Times and LA Podcast, politicians supported the ordinance by claiming it would allow police officers to link unhoused people to social services through the Homeless Engagement and Response Team. Some LA community members in favor of the ordinance claimed that the ordinance would free up parking for residents with homes and make streets safer and more sanitary. Critics of the ordinance claimed that this policy criminalizes homelessness and makes unhoused people less safe and less likely to be able to transition to housing. The issues raised in response to this ordinance, quality-of-life and debates about punishment and treatment, are all too familiar to me.

Courting the Community_smI spent about a year studying a community court—  I sat in the courtroom to observe daily case processing, talked to the people who worked there, and attended meetings court officials had with residents and various community groups. The first community court opened in New York City in 1993, since then, 37 more have appeared in cities including Minneapolis and Seattle, as well as in countries like Australia and Israel. The overarching thesis of community courts is that quality-of-life crimes victimize the community by creating disorderly conditions that lead to more crime. Whereas traditional courts often dismiss these charges or administer a small fine, community courts aim to “meaningfully punish” quality-of-life offenses. A teenager who vandalized a building might be ordered to paint over his graffiti. Someone who was publicly drunk may have to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and report back to the court. Community courts have a variety of sanctions at their disposal, and punishment might involve “paying back the community,” solving the “root causes” of offending, and jailtime for defendants who do not comply with court orders. They also frequently involve (non-offending) community-members in the justice process.

My experience observing what happened in court oscillated between watching Judge Judy and waiting at the DMV. I watched judges praise defendants who got clean, shaking their hands as the prosecutor ordered their initial crime to be removed from their record. When defendants failed to complete court orders, judges acted as a detached administer or a scolding parent, as he or she sentenced defendants to jail. Community courts embrace both rehabilitative and punitive ideas of punishment, which allow them to be simultaneously therapeutic and tough-on-crime. This seemingly conflictual logic is perhaps best put by one of my respondents, who said, “Some people want and need help, and others want to serve a life sentence 3 months at a time.”

Early in my fieldwork I was puzzled by how seamlessly the community court embraced contradictory goals of punishment and treatment. Over time, I came to understand that the flexibility of the community court model was integral to its success. Courting the Community explores how community courts act as flexible organizations in a deft way to create and maintain legitimacy. Community courts seductively promise residents and business owners safer neighborhoods and cleaner streets. They shower social service providers with additional judicial resources to aid in compliance. They pledge to traditional courts that they will ease burdensome case loads, freeing up more time for serious and violent crimes. My book explores how a community court strategically markets itself to various stakeholders by systematically deploying whatever narrative of effectiveness best fits the audience at hand.

Courting the Community focuses on just one court, but it contains larger lessons that extend far beyond the court’s walls. It raises important questions about what it means to construct “community” through the criminal justice system. It shows how community courts are involved in what I call the criminalization of incivility, which makes things like sleeping in public spaces or playing loud music late at night subject to criminal justice intervention. Courting the Community also guides readers to analyze how criminal justice reform movements make claims about their work and how those claims might obfuscate more empirically rigorous measurements of effectiveness.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: