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The Community Courts Initiative: Justice That Prioritizes Prevention, Not Punishment

The Southwest Detroit Community Court—and the few dozen other community courts around the country—are neighborhood-focused court programs that combine the power of the community and the justice system to address local problems. This innovative approach reduces recidivism and increases overall public safety while being responsive to the needs of local communities.

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) supports innovative programs like the Southwest Detroit Community Court through its Community Court Initiative (CCI), a two-year-old grant program that is open to state, local, and tribal governments across the United States. Since 2022, BJA has awarded $8.3 million in CCI grants to 10 community courts across the country. In fiscal year 2024, BJA is making $9 million available to potential CCI grantees.

CCI funding enables government agencies to design and establish flexible, non-traditional courts that address a wide range of local issues or specific offenses and rely on alternatives to incarceration, with the goal of reducing recidivism. In some cases, treatment programs and other initiatives have been found more effective at preventing repeat offenses than jail or prison sentences.

For example, Judge Shannon A. Holmes, Executive Presiding Judge of 36th District Community Court in Southwest Detroit, said the court is designed to meet the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods and the people who live there, including making the judicial system more accessible to non-English speakers. There are about 70 community courts nationwide, and each is structured to meet different local needs.

“If people don’t speak English, they may not be able to get a driver’s license,” Judge Holmes said. “And if they don’t have a driver’s license, they may not be able to come to court. And more problems pile up from there.” Community court, she said, works to prevent these practical considerations from putting defendants in unintended or unnecessary legal jeopardy.

Community courts are based on an operating model developed almost 40 years ago in Miami, Florida, in response to a rise in drug-related crime and substance use disorders. Miami was no exception and a rising number of arrests and ever-longer prison sentences failed to address the underlying needs of the community and increase public safety. So, local law enforcement and judicial officials developed an experimental, and radically different, approach to help people who struggled with substance use.

In Miami’s “drug court,” as it was called then, people charged with nonviolent crimes were referred to a drug treatment program. If they successfully completed the program, they were not incarcerated, and their charges were dismissed. Graduates of drug courts proved far less likely to commit repeat offenses than defendants processed in traditional courts.

This “treatment court” model has since been expanded to address an array of specialized populations, including veterans who struggle with substance use, people convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, and people with behavioral health conditions. There are now hundreds of treatment courts across the U.S.

Community courts take this approach one step further, allowing localities to customize their approaches based on the needs of the community to reduce incarceration and enhance public safety by addressing the underlying issues that have led to criminal behavior. For example, courts in residential neighborhoods are more likely to address housing, environmental issues and youth crime, whereas those in commercial and mixed-use areas often prioritize issues such as homelessness and disorderly conduct.

Judge Holmes said that community courts and treatment courts are strongly supported by local law enforcement leaders, who have discovered that, in some cases, these non-traditional courts offer more effective deterrents to future wrongdoing than incarceration.

“What we found out was, there were some people who were ‘frequent flyers,’” Judge Holmes said. “The police would arrest them over and over, and they would be out as soon as they were arraigned.

“We let the police department and the sheriff’s department know that if we could get these folks to treatment court or community court, they could get the support they need, and it would not be a revolving door. Once they saw that, law enforcement became some of our biggest advocates.”

To learn more about BJA's Community Courts Initiative or to apply for funding, visit the CCI webpage.

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Date Published: April 30, 2024