San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wants to start a community court in the notoriously blighted Tenderloin district similar to the 14-year old Midtown Community Court in New York City, says the San Francisco Chronicle. Opponents are lining up to fight what they call the Poverty Court. They say it will criminalize poor people for being poor — and sleeping on sidewalks, camping in parks and urinating in public.
The Chronicle describes the New York court under judge Richard Weinberg, who hears 17,000 cases a year. The judge, defense attorneys, prosecutors, social workers, and counselors have access to the defendant’s criminal history. To continue, defendants must plead guilty. They’re most often assigned community service to repay the neighborhood for their offenses — and social services to address underlying problems. Fines are never part of the sentence, but jail time can be. In 2005, 72 percent of defendants were sentenced to perform community service or receive assistance — or both. Eighty-five percent followed through, considered a high figure. Eight percent went to jail. Some sentences come with a special Weinberg lecture. The judge believes in second chances, but not third, fourth, and fifth ones. “I’m a law-and-order judge,” he said. “I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal. I don’t believe in giving away the store.” He adds: “This place is a social laboratory. You get immediate results, and you see the outcome right in front of your face.”