“This is how the justice system needs to operate,” Judge Kevin Burke of Minneapolis declared yesterday to the first international conference of community courts, meeting in Dallas. More than 30 community courts, which typically handle “quality of life” crimes and match defendants to social-service agencies, have started around the U.S. since the Midtown Community Court was established in New York City in 1993. Burke said community courts succeed because they afford defendants “procedural fairness,” treating them with respect and explaining their sanctions, which often involve community service.
The conference assembled prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and other experts from around the nation to discuss challenges facing community courts in a time of financial stress for many levels of government. District Attorney Michael Schrunk of Portland, Ore., acknowledging that some critics see community courts as “soft and fuzzy,” said the courts produce positive results for most defendants and are “good public safety policy in a budget crisis.” The concept is supported by the U.S. Department of Justice. Speaking at the conference, Mary Lou Leary, principal deputy attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, said community courts have shown a “remarkable ability to solve individual problems.” The conference, which ends today, is co-sponsored by the Justice Department and the New York City-based Center for Court Innovation.