Cities and counties increasingly are creating community courts to deal with habitual petty criminals that police call “frequent fliers,” USA Today reports. People arrested repeatedly for crimes such as public drunkenness, trespassing, and panhandling are crowding jails and sapping police resources. The cost of handling small-time criminals who cycle in and out of jail is becoming a more pressing problem for communities as budgets tighten and jail populations swell. The new courts sentence “frequent fliers” to treatment plans and social services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, instead of jail. “It’s the new frontier,” says Amy Solomon of The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “There is a new realization and recognition” that incarceration is not the best solution. “I think it’ll grow and continue to pick up.”
Cities began taking low level crime seriously in the 1990s, says Greg Berman of the Center for Court Innovation. Now communities – many with overcrowded jails – must deal with these offenders. In the last two years, community courts have opened in Lynchburg, Va., Santa Monica, Ca., and San Antonio. Orange County, Ca., will open a community justice center in August. Defendants will have access to 24 social service agencies, including substance abuse treatment, housing and a mobile pharmacy. Police officers may choose not to charge offenders who agree to seek treatment. Newark will open the first phase of its community court project this summer.