It’s a slow Monday morning at the Philadelphia Community Court, where casually clothed citizens accused of summary and misdemeanor offenses fill the seats and benches. It’s clear they’d prefer to not be there—as evidenced by the head nods and conversations amongst themselves. A boy wearing a polo, who looks about 14 or 15, is accompanied by his mother. She can’t have him “keep up with this bullshit,” she tells him. When Judge Felice Stack finally walks in, at almost 10:30, there are about 40 people waiting.
It’s business as usual in here, but not for long. The nearly 10-year-old Community Court at 1401 Arch Street—created to handle “quality of life” crimes such as drug possession, vandalism, prostitution and theft—will close its doors on Sept. 16.
The reason is twofold, says Philadelphia Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield: a lack of funding and, well, timing. The Center City District, which provided about one-third of the operating costs for the court, indicated it would no longer do so. And “it came around the same time our lease is expiring and the amount of rent the landlord proposed is extraordinarily higher than what we’re paying now,” Neifeld says.
The court mostly deals with summary offenses, which accounted for the majority of the hearings and misdemeanors—most of which, Neifield says, resulted in restorative sanctions like community service. (The court logged more than 500,000 hours of community service between 2002 and 2010, according to Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District).
Although it was originally established to cover the 6th and 9th police districts, the court eventually grew to serve eight police districts—about 30 times larger than the Center City boundaries—Levy writes in an email to PW .
“While we strongly believe in and support the mission of the Court, we indicated that we had more than helped establish both the proof of concept and the fact that in fines, penalties and community sentences, the City/FJD was more than recouping the costs of operating the Court,” Levy writes. In a memo the CCD sent to the D.A.’s Office and other city officials, Levy cites “efforts under way from within the criminal justice system to create several new community-based courts” in handing off “full financial responsibility to the City and to the First Judicial District.”
Still, some are concerned with what the closure means for the community.
“I think the loss of the Community Court will have a negative impact with the folks out there,” says 9th District Capt. Dan MacDonald, who’s been with the PPD since 1992. MacDonald says offenders from his district who previously went straight to the PCC (which provided expedited hearings) will now be issued citations on the street and, in some cases, will be brought into the district’s headquarters. Offenders will receive a date to appear at court in the Criminal Justice Center between 10 and 30 days after the incident, he says. “It was a very immediate effect [on offenders] … It’s a shame that funding was lost.”
While Neifield acknowledges that the new plan doesn’t result in immediate court action, she says she doesn’t believe the change in procedure will adversely impact the districts covered by the Community Court, and that the new programs will offer the services to the city at large, rather than to select areas. Offenders who commit nonviolent misdemeanors will have the option to proceed in the new Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP), which, like many of the punishments issued at the court, entails community service and a fine. If they don’t, the case will go to trial at the Criminal Justice Center. Likewise, eligible summary offenders will be given the option of enrolling in the Summary Diversion Program (SDP), which includes an educational class; if the class is not successfully completed, or if the offender chooses not to partake in the program, the case will be scheduled for trial. Neifield says she’s optimistic that these new programs, along with the Small Amounts of Marijuana Program, “will grow and fill in the needs that are currently served by Community Court.”
But the PCC helped people in more ways than just helping them stay out of jail. Offenders had access to social services at the court, including medical care and drug counseling.
“The whole purpose of community court was to take a holistic approach and to kind of address the needs of the individuals as they came in, with the recognition that sometimes people found themselves in court with issues that went beyond the case that was presented to the judge,” Neifield says, adding that the new programs would incorporate social services.
H. Jean Wright, criminal justice coordinator at the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, says his department, which currently has three employees working at the court, is prepared to work with the court system in the future. He says that while there have been discussions about working with the AMP, details have not been finalized.
It’s a little before noon, and the last few offenders are clearing out. Those who choose a no-contest plea settle quickly by simply agreeing to pay a fine and perform community hours. For the teen, it’s 25 hours. The court goes into recess and the benches are empty again—a scene that will be familiar in a matter of weeks.
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