Right now, if someone is sleeping on an Oak Cliff street, publicly urinating, in possession of drug paraphernalia, dumping illegally, violating codes, or committing other non-violent, "quality of life" crimes, he is cited and fined. People who commit such crimes often don’t have money to pay fines, so they opt to serve jail time instead. Then they end up back on the streets, committing the same offenses.
Community leaders are hoping to break these types of cycles through the West Dallas Community Court, which celebrated its grand opening today. The new court — the second community court in the city (the first is in South Dallas) — is housed in the West Dallas Community Center at Hampton and SIngleton. After being cited, offenders from the city’s southwest sector have seven days to appear in community court. If they enter a plea of guilty or no contest (most do, the court’s social services coordinator Sarah Pahl told me), then Judge Daniel Solis will asses a punishment to fit the crime — some sort of community service activity in the neighborhood in which the defendant committed the offense.
The court works with neighborhood organizations to come up with community service opportunities, so for example, someone who commits a quality of life crime in a particular neighborhood might be mowing a few lawns there in a matter of weeks. In this way, Pahl says, people can see justice being served.
I ran into Barbara Barbee of the Friends of Oak Cliff Parks today at the grand opening. She was there to put in a plug for offenders to serve their hours pulling weeds and planting flowers in neighborhood parks. When I walked around Lake Cliff Park with Barbee recently, we came across a couple of people sleeping under one of the pavilions there. I’m sure Barbee would be happy to see those same people spreading mulch over the park’s earthkind roses.
On top of the neighborhood benefitting, the offenders also receive help from the court. Pahl always tells offenders that her goal is to never see them again. She connects them with drug and alcohol treatment centers, job referrals, job training, job placement, or whatever other social services they might need to get on their feet.
Both Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia and Councilman Dave Neumann spoke today at the grand opening. Garcia talked about the "revolving door, neighbors complaining about the same problem over and over, and the same people getting arrested." The community court will address those problems, she said, calling it a "dream come true." Neumann stated that "all code compliance is about quality of life, about helping your neighborhood and your neighbor, not about punishing people." Their statements referred to the fact that the community court is not punitive but rehabilitative — both for the neighborhood and for the offenders.