In one San Francisco court, bowls of hard candy rest in front of the judge’s bench, as a reward for the men and women making their weekly court appearances and attending group therapy, reports the Associated Press. Almost daily, the judge awards one standout a $5 grocery store gift card — while the gallery claps and cheers. These scenes have played out thousands of times at the city’s Community Justice Center, one of about 40 community courts around the United States that tackle mostly low-level crimes in troubled neighborhoods using judges — not juries — to send defendants to drug treatment, shelter and social services, instead of handing down fines and time in overcrowded jails.
U.S. Department of Justice officials say community courts improve public safety by focusing on the crimes that are less high-profile but affect day-to-day life. They say the courts, along with similar rehabilitative courts, represent a shift away from judges just herding people through the system. And unlike the thousands of specialized drug courts across America, community courts are designed to provide quicker, cheaper justice while improving life in specific neighborhoods or police precincts. Defendants perform community service in the neighborhoods where they broke the law. Taggers must paint over graffiti. And shoplifters are required to help distribute clothes to the poor.