One offender had three open gross misdemeanor cases pending against her for trespassing — including one that involved being passed out in a Metro Transit bus shelter. But when she participated in a Minneapolis-Hennepin County community court pilot program this year, a social worker got her the services she needed to get treatment, remain sober and stay out of the court system.
The woman, whose case was cited by city officials who declined to provide her name, is an example of the effectiveness of a restorative justice approach to handling low-level criminal offenses, according to city officials. And creating more success stories like hers is good reason to support expansion of that kind of court.
Earlier this month, Hennepin County officials said a new “restorative court” will help connect those with minor offenses to social workers and other support services instead of probation officers. If they use those services successfully, they can have charges dropped and/or clear their records.
The new effort will fold in the county’s existing HOMES court; since 2013 it has provided housing for the homeless charged with crimes like loitering or public urination. The goal has been to find stable housing for them so that they’ll stop committing the offenses.
Beginning in February, the HOMES court (Housing Outreach for Minneapolitans Establishing Stability) will merge into the new Restorative Community Court. HOMES court hears cases one afternoon every other week; the new court will hold weekly sessions and be available to those with issues other than housing insecurity.
Those eligible to participate in the restorative court program must have been charged with a Minneapolis misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor. A defendant is ineligible if also charged with offenses such as indecent exposure or prostitution, domestic assault or other more serious violations. The offender cannot contest their case and must willingly accept services such as treatment or counseling.
Restorative court will join several successful Hennepin County judicial efforts aimed at those who commit low-level crimes. Hennepin courts for veterans, domestic violence and drug violations have proved their value in the last two decades by reducing court costs and recidivism for lesser offenses.
According to the county, the HOMES effort has reduced the average number of arrests, days in jail and days in detox for the homeless people who went through the court. That cut costs to the system by half in one year, saving more than $300,000. And the Downtown 100 effort, which connects chronic offenders in downtown Minneapolis with needed services, resulted in significant decreases in crime and recidivism.
The restorative court and other initiatives attempt to get at the underlying causes of behavior — not just punish the outcomes and pave the way for repeat trips to court, jail or detox, Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal told an editorial writer. She added that there are limited numbers of judges and courtrooms, and alternative programs can relieve some pressure on the judicial system and allow it to focus on other types of crimes.
“By far, the highest numbers of cases are in Hennepin County,” she said. “We’re combining this into one calendar — without losing the positive aspects of HOMES court — and serving more people who need connections to social service.”
It’s a sensible, proactive strategy not only for the individuals involved, but for the entire community. And it provides a way for people to get their lives back on track, clear their records and avoid more court and jail time.