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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Neighborhood Court to be established in Davis

In May, Yolo County will become the second county in California to employ Neighborhood Court, a method of restorative justice, in Davis and on the UC Davis campus.

This program, a partnership between Yolo County District Attorney (DA) Jeff Reisig, the Davis Police Department and the UC Davis Police Department, will handle low-level, nonviolent adult criminal offenses that would normally proceed through the criminal court system. There will be a separate neighborhood court for the UC Davis campus and another for the Davis community.

According to Reisig, the process of establishing a Neighborhood Court in Yolo County began in January, although he first began to consider the idea after a conference with other district attorneys about a year ago. Inspired by the success of the neighborhood court implemented in San Francisco by District Attorney George Gascon, Reisig believed a neighborhood court would be suitable for Davis as well.

“What intrigued me about it was that it’s a total alternative to the criminal process for low-level crimes,” Reisig said. “I was an undergrad at UC Davis, lived in the Davis community and knew it would be a good fit for Davis. It’s a diverse community, a sophisticated community, and there are a lot of people who would be interested.”

According to UC Davis Chief of Police Matt Carmichael, the neighborhood court process would begin like one for a typical misdemeanor: The offender is either cited or arrested for a low-level misdemeanor such as vandalism, theft, public drunkenness, loitering or being a minor in possession of an open container of alcohol and is issued a ticket with a court date.

“These are victimless crimes, but the victim is the community,” Carmichael said. “With a typical misdemeanor, the victim doesn’t have a role in the process.”

However, starting on Picnic Day, April 20, when the program officially begins, the offender will also receive a notice to contact the district attorney’s office within two weeks if they are interested in participating in the Neighborhood Court. If contacted, the district attorney’s office will determine the eligibility of the offender. The incident must be a first offense, and the offender must participate voluntarily.

“This is not a venue where people will go to determine guilt or innocence,” Reisig said. “The guilt of the offender is already established and the goal of the process is to make the victim whole. However, it is also a huge opportunity for the offender. The DA won’t file a criminal complaint, it won’t go on their record and they won’t have to live with the stigma of a criminal offense.”

The restoration of the victim, according to both Reisig and Carmichael, is the overarching goal of restorative justice. In the Neighborhood Court, this restoration is achieved through community service, to be agreed upon by the panel and the offender. Depending on the nature of the crime, this may include actions such as writing letters of apology or volunteering in the UC Davis Arboretum.

“The aim is to make the community whole and to fill in the gap created by the offender,” Carmichael said.

Annually, there are approximately 5,000 misdemeanors in Yolo County, 1,000 of which are issued in Davis, Reisig said. In addition to saving the time and money incurred through the court process, the Neighborhood Court has further benefits as well, according to Reisig.

“The problem with the traditional system is that the penalties are not meaningful for the parties involved,” Reisig said. “Davis is a college town with a young population base, and most of the offenders in crimes such as these are not ‘bad’ or destined for a life of crime. These are often just stupid decisions, and it [the Neighborhood Court] gives them the opportunity to make it right and avoid the stigma of a criminal offense.”

Neighborhood Court panelists are screened volunteers and receive approximately 20 hours of restorative justice training before participating. Neither the Davis panel nor the UC Davis panel is intended to be an unbiased decision-making body such as a jury — on the contrary, the UC Davis panel is composed of UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students, faculty or alumni who are part of the community.

“These are confidential hearings,” Reisig said. “They’re not open to the public or the media and are really a dialogue between the offender and the community. The program has proven successful in San Francisco from talking to the panelists and participants involved there.”

According to Reisig and Carmichael, the Neighborhood Court will never consider serious or violent crimes such as assault or rape. The goal, they say, is to ensure it is safe for everyone involved to participate.

“We’re primed for this,” Carmichael said. “I’m impressed we’re moving forward and am excited to be a part of it.”

Anyone interested in volunteering on a Neighborhood Court panel can apply at yoloda.org, which receives applications on a rolling basis.

The program has been met with positive reception by the UC Davis and Davis communities thus far, according to Reisig and Carmichael.

“The only criticism so far is that it should have started sooner,” Reisig said.

MEREDITH STURMER can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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