District Court Judge Gary Cash paints a frustrating picture. Of the thousands of criminal filings that came through the 28th District Court during the past year, many were the kinds of misdemeanors associated with homelessness. Think public intoxication, public urination, prostitution and aggressive panhandling. All in all, he notes, this is familiar ground for Asheville.
“As our downtown becomes more popular,” says Cash, “we've seen an increase in this kind of activity, particularly the aggressive panhandling.” What's more, the same people keep turning up in his courtroom over and over again. And with the District Court's total caseload topping 60,000 in 2008 and increasing year by year, the amount of time and attention that can be devoted to the people who commit these relatively minor crimes — and to the underlying social issues — is shrinking steadily.
“Unless we can slow down the process enough to address those issues,” Cash told Xpress, “the likelihood of those people coming back through is high.”
One potential solution is creating a “nuisance court” for Asheville — and if all goes according to plan, Assistant to the City Manager Lauren Bradley says she'll present a pilot program for City Council's approval by the end of this month.
Nationwide, there are about 35 community courts (as they're more commonly known), according to the New York City-based Center for Court Innovation. (A list is available at www.courtinnovation.org.) They focus on what are known as “quality-of-life crimes” — including the kinds of offenses cited above, along with such intractable issues as graffiti.
“It is a recognition that a community can be harmed by quality-of-life crimes … that normal courts have trouble wrapping their arms around,” explains Julius Lang, the nonprofit's director of technical assistance.
In nuisance courts, sentencing often emphasizes community service in the form of restorative efforts such as trash cleanup or repainting vandalized walls. Rather than serving jail time, which hasn't proved to be an effective deterrent, offenders are required to rectify their offenses.
There's also a broader social-service component. Judges, for example, can require offenders to participate in programs designed to address substance abuse. Often, these courts will have an expert on hand who's tied into the community's social-service network. In other words, recidivists begin getting personal attention.
“It's looked at as a therapeutic court,” says Cash.
In Asheville's case, the social-service component could also connect with existing efforts to address homelessness. Three years ago, the city adopted the housing-first model, which places chronically homeless people in housing, with no prerequisites such as employment or treatment for substance abuse.
“Other communities have made this work,” stresses Amy Sawyer, the city's Homeless Initiative coordinator. “We know that [the nuisance court] works; we just need the funding.”
Early estimates peg the cost of running the court one day per month at about $25,000 annually, plus another $10,000 to cover police overtime and other resources. But Bradley says City Council apparently wants to broaden the program's scope, which could increase the cost. Money might be forthcoming from the U.S. Office of Justice, which sometimes helps fund alternative court models.
At this point, however, many key points are still up in the air. A large group of stakeholders, including legal and social-work professionals, have been putting their heads together to try to determine the shape of the court (even the name is still up for discussion, notes Bradley).
“We're really hoping to implement something this fall,” she reports. “We want to try it this year.”
Closing the revolving door
In May, City Council members unanimously approved $35,000 for research and potential implementation of a pilot program after Asheville police Chief Bill Hogan came to them telling a tale much like Cash's.
Under the current system, perpetrators are arrested, brought before a magistrate, often can't pay their bail — and thus spend the night in jail. The next day, they appear before a District Court judge, and if they have a history of failing to appear at trial or still can't post bail, they spend a few more days in jail. But when the case goes to trial, the maximum penalty turns out to be time served, which puts them back on the street. “And truthfully,” says Cash, “a few days later and they might be right back [in court].”
“There's just so many cases,” notes Hogan. “The motivation to clear the docket is obviously there. But when you arrest a prostitute 44 times, handcuff them and send them to jail and nothing happens, to me there should be some sort of red flag.”
Asheville has struggled to get a handle on these kinds of crimes. In 2003, City Council tried to ban solicitation downtown, but the prevalence of street performers complicated enforcement efforts. And in a controversial move last fall, the city removed benches outside Pack Library where groups of homeless people were said to be engaging in assorted criminal activities.
Now, however, a large and growing number of local folks are wondering whether a nuisance court just might be the silver bullet the city has been looking for.
Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.