In June 2013, Yolo County launched a program for restorative justice called “Neighborhood Court.” UC Davis is the only university in the state of California to offer such a program. The initiative was inspired by a similar program implemented in San Francisco County in 2011.
There is increasing awareness of this alternative method as an answer to misdemeanor crimes. The student body of UC Davis has become involved with this process — in both the offender position and as volunteer panelists.
“The purpose of Neighborhood Court is twofold — to deter you from committing that act in the future and [making] an example of you to others,” said Chris Bulkeley, Yolo County Assistant District Attorney. “We are focused on identifying the harm caused by the criminal conduct and addressing that harm. We are looking for people that realize that they have done something wrong and have admitted guilt.”
Jeff Reisig, Yolo County District Attorney, said he views the Neighborhood Court as an example of innovative restorative justice and an alternative to criminal court.
“It is a complete, almost radical change from the traditional justice system. It’s good for the community, engages the community, while saving tax dollars and public money,” Reisig said.
The offenders who qualify for this court must have committed their first misdemeanors and have admitted that what they did was wrong. They would then make amends for their crime based on the mutual decision of three panelists. The offender must understand the negative impacts of their actions on themselves, the community and any affected individuals.
Neighborhood Court is not affiliated with the criminal law system, so the offender’s record is not tarnished. In addition, the cases are completely confidential so that there is no risk of unofficial embarrassment.
“Student offenders have a great opportunity to gain insight into the fact that they are part of our community — they matter, and what they do in Davis matters and impacts others,” said Jonathan Raven, Yolo County Chief Deputy District Attorney, in an email. “They can then make amends and reintegrate [into the community] without a criminal conviction haunting them forever.”
Involvement of the UCDPD, Davis Police
The new justice system has the support of the UC Davis Police Department (UCDPD) due to its ability to breach the boundaries of the university campus bubble and connect students with their neighbors. This should make students feel less attacked by the legal system and more encouraged to improve their conduct based on familiarity with the Davis community.
“I had no previous experience with Neighborhood Court, but it seems to be the right thing and a perfect fit for our community. The offender understands more than they would by being arrested — they have to make it right for the community. We have read feedback from the offenders, and all feedback has been phenomenal,” said UCDPD Chief Matt Carmichael.
Neighborhood Court is rapidly growing in popularity and gaining favor with the county administration, as well as with the general community. It is gaining a reputation as a more cost-effective and less morale-injuring alternative to jail time and arrest for first time misdemeanors.
The majority of nonviolent, low-level crimes seen in this court include being drunk in public, urinating in public, graffiti, petty theft and underage drinking. These crimes are unfortunately performed frequently by college students, both from UC Davis and surrounding academic facilities. For the purpose of judicial diversity and perspective, the Yolo County District Attorney’s office is hoping to recruit more UC Davis students as panelists.
“The process works better with a young person in there because of their diversity of viewpoint and life experiences, [so] the offender has a better feeling that it’s fair,” Bulkeley said.
Students are able to experience a realistic judicial experience and take part in an innovative process with a basis in restoration rather than punishment. Similarly, there are many future career advantages to volunteering with the Yolo County District Attorney’s office.
“This innovative program is the first to be offered at any UC and as UC alums, both the DA and I saw opportunities for student volunteers to beef up their resume and to develop mediation type skills for life,” Raven said.
The Neighborhood Court is looking to recruit students, professors and grad students in addition to all other members of the UC Davis community.
“If this program had been around when I was an undergraduate, I certainly would have joined. It’s a great resume builder,” Reisig said. “Being a panelist would be great preparation for criminal justice, law enforcement, law, psychology, sociology or anything where you have to deal with people in relationships. Being able to mediate through disputes is a key skill that we need in a professional world.”
Neighborhood Court looks forward to benefiting the UC Davis community specifically because the university is the epicenter of the City of Davis. Student volunteer panelists are in high demand, and the experience is unique and unmatched by any other in the state of California.
The District Attorney’s office will hold a two-day training for incoming panelists at the Davis Police Department on Oct. 19 and Nov. 7.
For more information regarding the Neighborhood Court program and the volunteer application, please visit yoloda.org.
“Volunteers can sit in the panel and come up with ways to make the crime right. It’s a great opportunity to serve your community,” Reisig said.
SHANNON SMITH can be reached at email@example.com.