John Fyffe folded his legs up under himself on the wooden bench, picked dirt from his fingernails and grumbled: "I'm an honorably discharged Marine. I have no previous criminal charges. None. If they just give me a month, I'll be off the streets."
Fyffe had been called to a tiny courtroom on the seventh floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse on Sept. 24 for the first day of Asheville's new nuisance court. He said he faced a total of eight charges, such as panhandling, and he wasn't happy about it.
Around him were a dozen or so other men charged with "quality of life" misdemeanors — public intoxication, skateboarding on sidewalks and so forth — who like Fyffe were waiting for their turn before Judge Calvin Hill.
"I think they're doing it just to harass me because they don't want me here," Fyffe said of the police. Even the name of the court — the "nuisance court" — grated on him. "It's being degrading toward the people here."
Despite that negative review, a number of Asheville's elected officials and top police and court officers have pinned high hopes on the new court. On the court's first day, Mayor Terry Bellamy, Vice Mayor Jan Davis and Council member Carl Mumpower all stopped by. Police Chief Bill Hogan watched. Someone from the city manager's office took notes, as did a representative of the Asheville Downtown Association. Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore popped in, while Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher handled the first day's cases for the state.
City and court officials see the court as a positive way to reform bad behavior while meting out justice in the form of community service rather than jail time. It's also considered a "therapeutic court" with its emphasis on offering or requiring programs aimed at addressing substance abuse. On the court's first day, several representatives of the nonprofit Women at Risk handed defendants a brochure and talked to them about their agency's services.
"I like the idea of community service. I think this court puts an emphasis on that, and it's my hope that we begin to change behaviors," Hogan said during a break in proceedings.
If nuisance court defendants begin to adopt a sense of "ownership and participation" in the community, said Dreher, following the morning session, and "they're replenishing the resources of the city rather than draining them away, then I'm real hopeful it will be a success."
There's no doubt there's more work to be done to ensure the court's a success, said Mumpower, who offered a quick critique after about an hour of observation. The court needs to operate more efficiently, better explain its purpose and outcomes, and create a better atmosphere, he said.
"This is as much an opportunity for group therapy and group education as it is punishment," Mumpower said after chatting up a teen charged with skateboarding on a public street.
"We're here to salvage people."
Earlier this year, City Council agreed to spend about $25,000 a year to fund the court and pay for supplies for the community-service component.
Fyffe, represented by a public defender, had his case continued until next month's session. Fyffe said he's willing to perform the community service he expects to be assigned, "but I shouldn't have been charged with this."
But another case showed the potential for positive outcomes, noted Dreher. One defendant, who was required to perform 15 hours of community service for a skateboarding infraction, spent nearly an hour talking with District Attorney Moore about possible changes to the city's ordinance and left the courtroom ready to post the law in local skate shops and take an educational message to school children.
"To see that dynamic evolve, and to see the city's level of support, is pretty encouraging," Dreher said.