By Gina Scalpone, Zack Demars and Donny Morrison
Published June 29, 2020
Jourdan Horton made her way from Minnesota to Oregon two years ago on the promise of working on a farm near Eugene, a liberal university town in the state’s Willamette Valley. The job fell through, she lost possession of her car and Horton soon found herself living on the streets.
It didn’t take long before she ended up like hundreds of other unhoused people in Eugene: charged with crimes as a result of being homeless.
Just after a sunrise in September 2018, Horton was under a blanket, huddled near a parking lot, when a police officer saw her and charged her with trespassing. Five months later, another officer charged her with trespassing when she ducked into the alcove of a business to get out of the rain. She’d sat down on the pavement right next to a painted “No Trespassing” warning.
Each charge could bring her 30 days in jail and a $280 fine that she couldn’t afford to pay. But in both cases, the officers referred her to something called community court. There, she could avoid conviction if she chose to perform community service and engage with services that could help her with housing, a job search and health care. If she did all that and stayed out of trouble for a month, the city would drop the charges.
It took Horton eight months to finish, but she said the program provided order to her life.
“It gave me something to do,” Horton said. “It gave me missions to run around town and not be bored. It allowed me to find resources as well.”
For more than 20 years, the community court model has been touted across the U.S. as an alternative for people who end up in court over and over again, often for the same offenses.
In many cases, these defendants are unhoused and repeatedly end up in court charged with trespassing, loitering, camping and a long list of other low-level, nonviolent crimes linked to their life on the streets.
Backers of community courts say these programs connect defendants with mental health programs, addiction counseling, assistance with housing and other services that help them navigate life and, hopefully, stay out of trouble with the law.
Julius Lang, a senior adviser at the Center for Court Innovation, said community courts connect defendants with services that can change their lives. That’s something traditional courts aren’t equipped to do.
“It requires housing and requires other services, and it’s not something that people who go to law school are trained to deal with, and that the justice system was set up to respond to,” Lang said. “What community courts are designed to do is to become part of the solution.”
These problem-solving courts, including similar programs that deal with drug offenses, seek alternatives to jail by helping defendants with services such as housing, addiction treatment and job training. Many community courts will drop the charges if the defendant completes the program.
But a big question facing community courts remains generally unanswered: Do they end the cycle of arrests?
The results have been mixed. In many cases, community courts aren’t even asking that question, leaving claims of their long-term impact on recidivism open for debate.
Maya Buenaventura, in a 2018 study for the Pardee RAND Graduate School, found the graduates of Santa Monica Homeless Community Court spent more time in transitional and permanent housing than those who didn’t finish the program.
Buenaventura said she believes the community court reduced recidivism — but no one kept data that could answer that question.
“Looking at recidivism is important,” Buenaventura said. “The purpose of problem-solving courts is to stop the revolving door of the criminal justice system through which individuals with mental health disorders, substance use disorders and histories of chronic homelessness go from the street to incarceration and back again, without treatment.”
Starting in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice gave out $3 million in grants to 15 community courts — including established programs in Spokane, Washington, and Philadelphia, and others, such as those in Reno, Nevada, and Jersey City, New Jersey, that were just getting started.
The grants were administered by the Center for Court Innovation, affiliated with the New York state courts system. Many of those cities set reducing recidivism as a goal, but the grant didn’t require courts to keep track of that data. Instead, the courts reported how many people went through their programs, noted the kinds of services they received and collected anecdotes about success stories.
Lang said such factors measure how a defendant’s life has been improved by community court, where they have to take personal responsibility.
“You don’t get the luxury of ignoring recidivism,” he said. “But when something like this is so inextricably tied with social problems, I think a sort of proxy for recidivism is, maybe, accountability.”
Cleveland Municipal Court received a DOJ grant in 2016. Pearlresia Alexander, the program’s coordinator, said the main reasons they started the community court were to decrease recidivism rates and improve quality of life.
Alexander said the court doesn’t track recidivism because the court doesn’t keep enough data to see how often defendants return to court on new charges. But she estimates about 10 to 15 of the 60 graduates of community court have been readmitted since 2018.
“Why make a community court? To improve the lives of the people in the inner city,” Alexander said. “We don’t want to hold you onto any leashes because of the fact that we understand that it’s a quality-of-life crime. It’s very circumstantial.”
At the Las Vegas Township Community Court and Community Impact Center, tracking recidivism isn’t a priority. The program — a few blocks off the city’s famous casino strip — works with frequent low-level offenders. Court is only held twice a week, but the center is open Monday through Friday, offering services such as mobile showers and referrals to mental health treatment and food stamp assistance.
Program requirements are tailored for each person and can take from 90 days to a year to complete. “We’re actually going to sit down and listen to why this happened,” said Melissa Bowman, one of the program coordinators. “What we can do to make sure that this doesn’t happen again?”
More than two-thirds of the 543 defendants in the program have graduated. The court, which continues on a tight budget after the DOJ grant ran out, doesn’t track how often its graduates return to court.
“We measure success very differently here,” said Scott Carlson, another program coordinator. “If they stayed out of trouble for 30 days, that’s a standing ovation by the staff.”
The first community courts, established in New York two decades ago, showed marked drops in recidivism.
The community court in Spokane, based at the city’s downtown library, is now considered a model program. A 2019 Washington State University report found defendants one year after going through the program were less likely to reoffend than those who didn’t. The report noted, however, that looking at only a year’s worth of data doesn’t provide much history to analyze.
Researchers at Indiana University-Bloomington, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Wayne State University showed in 2015 that, over time, the Indianapolis Community Court was no more effective than the traditional criminal court at reducing recidivism.
They found that recidivism was reduced while the defendants were under the court’s supervision. After more time passed, the study found, “The beneficial effect associated with Community Court participation decays and criminal behavior may resurface.”
Success largely depends on how well the courts are run and the nature of their programs.
The Second Chance Community Improvement Program in Dallas, designed for defendants ages 17 to 30, used its DOJ grant to become one of the first community courts to focus on felonies. None of the program’s 15 to 20 graduates have returned to court.
Yulise Waters, an attorney who helped start the program in 2014 and who managed the federal grant, said the program is designed to stop “revolving-door crime.” Waters said most defendants have faced significant barriers and obstacles, and the program’s assistance with housing or food security resulted in improvements in their lives.
“Even if they failed out of the program,” Waters said, “if they were better off when they failed out of the program than they were when they came in, we counted that as success.”
Eugene Municipal Court Administrator Cheryl Stone, who led the effort to create that city’s community court, said the program also helps anyone who needs it, whether or not they face charges.
“I have seen individuals come to our door unhoused, angry and with significant addictions,” Stone said in an email, noting that many people find housing thanks to the community court program. Stone said they emerge “grateful, part of our community, conquering addiction. They leave with hope.”
Still, the Eugene court launched with the goal of reducing recidivism, and within a year, city officials claimed they had succeeded.
But an investigation by student journalists at the University of Oregon found about 30% of the program’s 134 graduates were later convicted of new crimes or violations — a rate far higher than city officials had claimed, and a pattern not different from the past.
Their investigation, published in Eugene Weekly, found the program wasn’t reaching the people whom officials dub “frequent fliers” who return to court again and again. Most of the program’s graduates had little or no history of getting into trouble with the police in the first place.
Stone said that, as with any new program, court officials have learned from the past. “As we get information that is evidenced-based,” she wrote in her email, “we apply that information to be better, and better serve our participants.”
Horton’s experience with the Eugene court is emblematic of the challenge of recidivism.
Horton said the Eugene community court required her to show up on Fridays and sometimes perform community service — in her case, picking up litter. In return, the program helped her get food stamps and an ID card.
She can see why so many unhoused people struggle to finish the program. “Lack of motivation, lack of a desire to show up to appointments on time,” Horton said. “Sleeping in, staying up too late. Any number of reasons, and as much as I hate to say it, the influence of drugs and alcohol play a role.”
Horton said she was determined to succeed and scheduled her appointments later in the day. “I knew I’d be able to make them no matter what,” Horton said. “And that’s how I went through with the program. That was my little secret to success.”
But after graduating, Horton didn’t find housing and struggled to stay out of trouble. Police ticketed her in February 2019 for illegal camping in front of the county courthouse after they had asked her to move along. She still carries a debt of $263 in fines and fees for the camping violation.
In October 2019, police ticketed her for violating city park rules, and two months later charged her with her third case of criminal trespass. She’d been found sleeping next to an office building — she’d draped a tarp over a bike rack as a makeshift tent.
She ended up back in community court.
“It was very welcoming,” Horton said. “They were a little disappointed to see me back.”
The court helped her connect with temporary housing — a city-sanctioned hut — and in February she graduated from community court a second time, one of the few to do so.
“It’s a wonderful program,” she said, “designed just to help you figure out yourself, figure out getting off the ground.”
Scalpone, Demars and Morrison are from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.