DC Community Court Expansion: A Step in the Right Direction
As of September 2016, 1,845 individuals are under the supervision of the DC Department of Corrections (DOC). The DOC has calculated a 2016 Fiscal Year re-incarceration rate of 20.2% for all inmates. Of those 1,845 incarcerated individuals, 27.1% reside in Ward 8, while 23.1% reside in Ward 7. Most importantly, only 40.6% of male inmates and 31.2% of female inmates are incarcerated on violent or dangerous offenses, with 15.4% of those incarcerated charged with misdemeanor offenses. That number equates to approximately 284 individuals.
In 2002, the DC Superior Court established the East of the River Community Court (ERCC), the District’s first community court, to address the high rates of poverty, crime, and disorder east of the Anacostia River, when compared to other areas in the city. Community courts, such as the Midtown Community Court and others across the country, hear misdemeanor cases, sentence
offenders to community service rather than jail time, and provide social services. The goal is to reduce crime and incarceration by incorporating justice and responding to the needs of the surrounding areas.
Following the community court framework, the East of the River Community Court adjudicates misdemeanor cases that do not involve domestic violence originating in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) 6th and 7th Districts. Both police districts are located within Wards 7 and 8. One judge presides over the ERCC and hears a case through all phases from arraignment to disposition. The judge collaborates with several agencies and organizations to balance punishments, community service, and the needs of the defendant. Invested agencies and organizations include D.C. Superior Court staff, the Pretrial Services Agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the US Attorney’s Office, the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, the Metropolitan Police Department, and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The ERCC also draws community input from the ERCC Community Advisory Board, whose members live or work in the affected areas.
In the ERCC program, every low-risk defendant is afforded a determination of eligibility by the US Attorney’s Office. An eligible defendant may voluntarily participate in an ERCC diversion program, such as a First-Time Offender Program, a Deferred Prosecution Agreement, a Deferred Sentencing Agreement, Johns School, an Angels’ Project Power Program, a HIPS Trans-in-formation Program, a STET (Unlawful Entry Program), Meditation, Drug Court, or Mental Health Court. Also, diversion programs generally include community service where the offense originally took place. Successful completion of a diversion program results in the case being closed with a nolle diversion disposition, under the recommendation of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Alternatively, a defendant may opt out of programming by entering a plea or requesting a trial. Such a defendant will progress through the traditional criminal justice system. Such a defendant will also, most likely, receive a traditional criminal sentence with jail time and high fines.
In 2010, approximately eight years after opening ERCC’s doors, the DC Superior Court commissioned a study to gauge the effectiveness of the ERCC. If the ERCC was effective, the hope was to expand the program across Washington D.C. by January 1, 2012 and spread the goals of “enhancing the quality of life in DC neighborhoods, addressing offender needs by linking them to treatment and social services, increasing public trust and confidence in the court system, increasing offender accountability, streamlining case processing, reducing criminal justice costs, and forging partnerships to solve neighborhood problems.”
The study focused on 4,064 defendants who entered ERCC in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Overall, the results showed that, of those defendants studied, 21% were involved in the ERCC diversion programs. Of those 21%, 60% completed their program successfully.
In comparing the effectiveness of the program as a whole, the results of the study were compared to results gathered in MPD 5th District and matched on gender, age, race, residence, criminal history, severity of offense, and maximum severity score. Re-incarceration levels were lower among ERCC defendants than those in the comparison group while cases were pending, by 60%, and twelve months post-adjudication, by 40%. From case process to post-adjudication, re-incarceration of defendants who successfully completed the ERCC diversion program was 50% less likely than re-incarceration of defendants who did not complete an ERCC diversion program.
After reviewing the positive results of the study, the East of the River Community Court Program was indeed expanded to include all of Washington D.C with some changes. By January 1, 2012, the Superior Court started four additional community courts; one each in MPD 1st district, 2nd and 4th district, 3rd district, and 5th district. The East of the River Community Court was divided into two calendars, one for MPD 6th district and one for MPD 7th district. One judge, per district, continued to take most misdemeanor cases, while a rotation of judges handled a combined calendar for the 2nd and 4th districts. Also, cases that went to trial in the East of the River Court, and were assigned to other judges at random, will be handled by the same judge from start to finish. Lastly, community service site placements were transferred from Pretrial Services to the East of the River Court in the 6th and 7th districts.
The expansion of the East of the River Community Court Program was certainly a step in the right direction for the DC Superior Court. It is clear from the study that the original program reduced re-incarceration rates within Wards 7 and 8, as compared to other areas around the city. As Superior Court Judge Robert Rigsby, presiding East of the River Court judge for 2010 and 2012, explained "the program works because the community feels invested. Two, you’ve changed people’s lives for the better. Three, you have judges who actually care.”
The expansion will, hopefully, do the same for the entirety of DC. Guilty individuals are being punished and negative impacts on the community are decreasing. Robert Pittman, 2012 chairman of the First District Citizens Advisory Council, states it best that, “The program is separating career criminals from people who just need help by providing jobs and helping them with their behavior.”
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