“Once upon a crime in San Francisco, an underage college student caught shoplifting a bottle of vodka from a liquor store ended up in the same courtroom with much more hardened criminals.
The shopkeeper who was robbed would see little in the way of justice or restitution. That’s because the judge, overwhelmed with more serious criminal cases, likely would send the teenage thief home with barely a warning.
Instead, the real punishment was reserved for the taxpayers, at a cost of $1,500 for that shoplifter’s single court appearance. That money helped pay for judges, lawyers, court clerks, sheriff’s deputies and so forth. Such costs add up when you consider that San Francisco prosecutors handle upward of 5,000 misdemeanor cases annually.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” District Attorney George Gascón said in a recent interview.
But this scenario is becoming a thing of the past due to the rapidly expanding neighborhood court system that Gascón implemented when he took office.
That program, in which alleged perpetrators stand before regular people instead of judges, is not only 80 percent cheaper than the conventional prosecutorial approach to such cases, but Gascón believes it also is a more meaningful way to mete out justice to low-level offenders.
- 10 neighborhood courts, one for each police district
- 200 volunteer citizens acting as “panelists,” i.e., informal judges
- 600 cases transferred by prosecutors this year from misdemeanor court to the neighborhood courts
- 5,000 cases handled by prosecutors in a year in misdemeanor court
- $300 cost for a neighborhood court case
- $1500 cost for a misdemeanor court case, not including a jury trial”
Great model for other cities. This is what the Community Court does, but online!