A creative solution to D.C. crime

Dante Davis said she did not intend to get arrested. She wasn’t violent, she wasn’t dangerous and she wasn’t planning to do anything illegal. The orange-haired, twenty-something simply remembers being frustrated and tired.

As she waited at a bus stop after work, she got into a verbal altercation with another woman. When Davis boarded the bus, her threats alerted a nearby police officer.

Her arrest for disorderly conduct was punishable by a $250 fine or up to 90 days in jail, but Davis walked away without a trial and only a $35 fine.

It wasn’t a lucky break. Rather, it was a result of being tried in the D.C. community court, an expanding system that seeks alternatives to jail sentences for certain crimes in the District.

“To me it’s beneficial. Paying a fine is nothing for me not to come back here and go through all of that,” Davis said. “I’m glad I don’t have to go to trial. Court is stupid.”

More offenders have been avoiding jail time since the establishment of community courts in the District beginning in 2002. Traffic, misdemeanor, and correctable offenses – including drug abuse, prostitution, and drunk driving – are pled out in exchange for probation, community service, drug rehabilitation or some combination of these punishments.

D.C. has two community courts. One called the East of the River Court is for misdemeanors committed by residents of Wards 7 and 8. The other, the D.C./Traffic Community Court, hears traffic and misdemeanor violations like possession of an open container or traffic tickets.

Community courts, which target “quality of life offenses,” have existed since 1993 when the Midtown-Manhattan community court opened in New York City. It pioneered the idea of correcting the problem, rather than merely sending offenders to jail.

Davis’ case was an example of a diversion called post and forfeit, which allows defendants to pay a fine after which the case is dismissed without a guilty plea. The purpose is to cut down on the number of low-level offenses in criminal court.

“Therapeutic courts are alternatives to incarceration,” said East of the River Community Court Judge Craig Iscoe.

The Office of the D.C. Attorney General determines who is eligible for a diversion. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, but most defendants in the misdemeanor and traffic court have been charged with low-level misdemeanors and do not have serious criminal records. Defendants in the East of the River Community Court have been charged with non-domestic violence in Metropolitan Police Department districts 6D and 7D, must not test positive for drugs, and must not have misdemeanor charges pending. Cases that are ineligible for diversion are sent to trial.

Diversion programs are more cost effective to the city and aim to involve everyone from community groups to social services and governmental organizations in correcting social problems, instead of leaving it up to the judge and jury.

“I think we make a big difference in the community and sending people to jail alone doesn’t fix the problem,” Iscoe said.

Women arrested for prostitution and brought to community courts can be ordered to complete rehab at Angel’s Project Power, a diversion program that empowers women involved in prostitution and teaches them skills to start over – without a criminal record.

Drugs play a large role in many of the cases that come before the East of the River Community Court, where defendants are subject to weekly drug testing, Iscoe said. He estimated that 95 percent of women arrested for prostitution struggle with addiction.

“Rather than spend 30, 60, 90 days in jail, they can learn coping skills and fight addiction with drug programs,” Iscoe said. “They have a reason to get a job, be clean of drugs, to stay out of jail – they do their community service.”

Iscoe said he sees firsthand how community courts improve the defendants’ lives. He remembers a woman arrested for prostitution who had probation revoked before she completed her diversion program. She later thanked him, saying his help with her case led her to turn her life around.

“The first day a defendant will look terrible and after the program they’ll look great,” Iscoe said.

But rates of community courts’ success in the District have not been published. After six years, little data exists on either of the D.C. courts regarding whether defendants have returned to crime or stayed clean.

“It’s hard to measure recidivism. Do you do it annually? Count arrests in Maryland and Virginia?” Iscoe said. “There’s no published data, but anecdotally we believe it to work.”

Marcus Brooks was arrested on assault charges, but tested positive for PCP in the week before his Sept. 8 court date. Clad in a Superman T-shirt, Brooks learned that his failure to comply with the conditions of his release, which included clean drug tests, disqualified him from the diversion programs.

A criminal court date with a new judge was assigned, and Brooks was taken into custody.

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