The Hartford, Ct., Community Court is part of a different breed of specialty courts that are popping up across the U.S., reports the Christian Science Monitor. These operations have small staffs and deal only with specific crimes in specific neighborhoods. Some focus on drug offenses; others handle cases involving veterans. Courts like Judge Raymond Norko's deal with so-called quality-of-life offenses in high-crime, urban neighborhoods. These relatively minor, always nonviolent, crimes range from loitering and panhandling to shoplifting and trespassing. In a traditional criminal court, those cases are often dismissed or expedited as judges devote more time to violent offenses. Offenders frequently return to the streets and offend again.
In Hartford, this revolving-door system prompted local community groups to campaign for a community court to address persistent minor offenses. Community courts allow for the best of both worlds, says Chris Pleasanton, the court’s program coordinator. With community courts handling all quality-of-life crimes, criminal courts are able to focus their attention on more serious and violent crimes. In turn, the community courts can work with defendants to address the root causes of their offenses, which often stem from mental illness and substance abuse. Today there are at least 40 community courts in 14 states and Washington, D.C.