Today I wanted to talk about solutions to the budgetary crisis faced by the Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC) system. The depletion of court resources eliminates local accountability, discourages long-term rehabilitation, and contributes to a dysfunctional justice system. I think it is time to think outside the box for ways to improve the system, without stretching the existing system beyond reasonable capacity. I have three steps to do this.
Office Hearings in Lieu of Prosecution
I think expansion of District Attorney and City Attorney Office Hearings is one way to steer more cases away from the court system, and yet accomplish goals of the system. While office hearings are typically handled by non-attorneys employed by the CA, I think expanded involvement and collaboration between the DA, Public Defender, and the private defense bar could create a more representative system, and encourage community solutions, rather than more criminal case filings.
Expansion of APPS - Misdemeanor and Felony Referrals
The City Attorneys’ Offices (CAs) in southern California have used the APPS Program for more than 15 years, steering misdemeanor cases away from the court system, and into a rehabilitative setting. The LA District Attorney should reconsider this program for misdemeanor and some felony referrals (at present time, it is not a DA Program). The cost to the prosecution agencies is minimal, and is generally limited to staff time spent evaluating the cases for referrals and completion. There is a program cost of about $355 paid by eligible candidates accepted into APPS. Most candidates would gladly pay the expenses for APPS if given the opportunity to resolve their cases outside of the justice system.
APPS is managed by a private company, providing a second chance for first time offenders, through an academic program, sometimes coupled with a community service component. APPS provides completion documents to the prosecution agencies, as well as notification of non-compliance.
I make requests for this program (in eligible jurisdictions) for the majority of my clients’, and have been impressed with CAs’ willingness to carefully consider this option. I think one of the reasons CAs consider APPS in lieu of court, is the expansive roles of many local defense attorneys’, steering clients toward a more productive life during and after the case, in academic and occupational pursuits. If clients are given a 2nd chance, and encouraged to succeed in school and/or work, there is less likelihood of future legal problems.
Neighborhood Courts – Expansion in Los Angeles
A voluntary, “informal” court system was first established in two California jurisdictions, San Francisco and Yolo County, steering cases away from criminal prosecution, and into a neighborhood, or community setting. While the Yolo Program just began in May, 2013, San Francisco DA George Gascon (a former police chief) overhauled the existing San Francisco Neighborhood Court system in 2011. The San Francisco program focuses on community solutions, and cases are adjudicated by volunteer community members, who are trained “problem solvers.” Directives are made by the community members, to the accused person, including assignments of community work and victim restitution. Those who successfully complete this program are steered out of the criminal court system.
According to the SFDA, a request must be made to the corresponding “Neighborhood Prosecutor” within 5 days of the arrest/citation date, to be considered for the program.
In 2012, according to the SFDA, this program handled about 700 cases. Currently, the San Francisco Neighborhood Court does not allow defense attorney participation, which presents some concerns related to oversight.
While Neighborhood Courts have had mixed reviews, I think they are an important step in the right direction. The goal is to divert low-level cases (misdemeanor and infraction) from the overburdened justice system, and provide “restorative” solutions and accountability. I think Neighborhood Court can be designed to accomplish this on a larger scale.
This program is being utilized somewhat in Los Angeles County, and should be expanded, focusing on accountability of the participants, as well as improvement to the community at large.
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