For the last three years, the Spokane Municipal Community Court has assisted 143 participants obtain housing and case management assistance through collaboration between Better Health Together, Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities, and SNAP. Nine hundred bus passes have been provided by Catholic Charities to help participants get to their doctor appointments. Providence Consistent Care assisted 121 individuals in obtaining primary physicians and reducing visits to the emergency department. Over 10,000 lunches have been provided to both participants of Community Court and library patrons demonstrating a need. Lion’s Club distributed 223 pairs of reading glasses to individuals in need, and scheduled 128 eye exams to obtain prescription glasses. Three hundred twenty five participants have graduated, many of whom committed no offense after graduation. Over 2,600 downtown community service hours have been completed by Community Court participants in the same locality where the crime was committed. Skils’kin has enrolled approximately 65 participants for payee services. At least 50 participants have been referred to the Dental Emergencies Needing Treatment program (DENT). Roughly 2,700 individuals with no criminal charges accessed provider services offered at Community Court on Mondays. Over 1,000 participants have been referred to Community Court each year, some without any infraction by the same officer who would have filed charges against them three years ago. The Downtown precinct officers and Spokane Transit Authority security team have greatly helped us redirect folks to programs.
Herein lies my joy, but we are not there yet. Many of my clients are still lost in the system. Lost to a criminal justice system that is broken. They are lost to a system that perpetuates injustice by criminalizing poverty in the greatest nation on earth. We have to do more than the current status quo. For far too long, many of those who work in the criminal justice system do not understand how to communicate in the language of poverty. They believe everyone in America is a member of the middle class and they can read and write. Some think if we could just give them a piece of paper they would get their act together and make it in life. Some angrily ask, "Why can’t they pull themselves up by their shoelaces?" Forgetting many don’t even have legs (due to physical and mental disability) or when they do, they cannot afford the shoes.
So how can we achieve real change in the lives of those we serve? The answer lies in love. We are finding that when we show that we care about our participants in Community Court, they respond by obeying the law. The difference lies with case managers who care deeply about their clients’ predicament and work hard to help them. Love them until you see real change. From my experience, love and respect lie at the root of the success of Community Court in Spokane. When they find a prosecutor that used to routinely lock them up reach out to them with love, encouraging, prodding and offering genuine concerns about their plight, it surely makes a difference. When the judge, the prosecutor, and public defender are willing to show them love when they relapse or fail to show up for court appearances, they in turn will respond in kind by following court orders and obeying the law.
As the Center for Court Innovation indicated in a recent press release, we cannot underestimate “the importance of small gestures”. One thing Judge Logan insisted on when we started Community Court was the need to serve our participants a free lunch. She often had to stay up all night to bake cookies for graduates of Community Court. It is well known in Downtown Spokane that the Downtown library is where you get lunch as a homeless person on Mondays. While the drug treatment, job training, community service et al are important components, all of that would be of no avail if they were not accompanied by the feeling that the court staff and law enforcement in the field care about them.
We have helped many fellow citizens dream again. They have come out of the shadows and started to contribute to the improvement of their city. As one of the participants told me recently, “It is my city too, that is why I give back by doing community service.”
As we celebrate a brand new year, I want us to bear in mind my Christmas experience years ago. It doesn’t have to end that way. We need an extreme makeover of our misdemeanor criminal justice system to a more caring and supportive program that helps alleviate the pain of being poor and not compound it by fines and incarceration. Let this CCI clarion call to practitioners ring out loudly: “With your help, we will continue to redouble our efforts to transform lives, create a more humane justice system, and advance common decency.” Yes, we need a community justice program in the mold of the Innocence Project for misdemeanants in our criminal justice system. It will take a desire to collaborate across platforms by breaking out of silos and barriers that easily barricade our community justice. To get community justice, we need you (my readers) to become more involved, as volunteers or providers of services, engage, participate, let your voice be heard, speak out, join with others. The reform is ongoing but it will take all of us working together to attain this worthy goal.