Justice Without the Judging Part

LaWayne Hopkins is no stranger to the legal system. For 25 years he’s bounced back and forth between street corners and jails cells. He peddled cocaine, he smoked crack.

”My life has been a turmoil,” he said, his voice crackling with emotion.

Hopkins never imagined the same system that ensnared him for so long, would end up being his salvation. But while cooling his heels in the San Francisco County jail, he was approached with an interesting offer: Get off probation early, in exchange for participating in San Francisco’s new Community Justice Center.

The center was established a year ago by Mayor Gavin Newsom to deal with low-level offenders in the Tenderloin, Civic Center and South of Market area. Clients, as they’re referred to, are required to check in with a judge in a community courtroom on Polk Street. Then they must attend a regiment of counseling classes, perform community service and keep on the straight and narrow.  

“We’re not just waiting for the clients to re-offend,” said CJC Director Tomiquia Moss. “We are trying to get them at the time of their arrest or citation -- support them directly on site and be able to support them along the way of their process.”

The center got off to a bumpy start last March after the Board of Supervisors voted against funding the center. Then, Public Defender Jeff Adachi refused to allow the services of his attorneys because of lack of city funding. It took House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to secure a $1 million in federal funding to launch the court. Newsom said it will cost $817,000 to operate the center this year. The center has used private attorneys to represent the clients.

The center also drew fire from homeless advocates who believed the new center would target people who live on the streets.

“We did follow the CJC for its first six months of existence," said Bob Offer-Westort, of the Coalition on Homelessness. “At that time it was pretty clearly it was an anti-homeless court -- two thirds of the defendants were homeless people and half of that was simply for sleeping outside.”

But the coalition said it hasn’t followed the court’s progress over the last six months.

During the last year the center said it heard the cases of 2,161 defendants and engaged 860 clients in social services. The City said 73 percent of clients showed up for their court appearances, in contrast to 20 percent of low level offenders who show up in traditional courtrooms.

Jonathan Dearborn was serving an 11 day jail sentence for selling marijuana when one of the center’s advocates approached him about entering the program. He said the center’s tough love approach has given him hope.

“They’ve made me feel not like a criminal,” he said. “Not like somebody who’s just going to repeat, repeat, re-offend. I actually feel like I can move on now.”

Newsom visited the center Tuesday to mark its anniversary. He sat with a group of community court clients who offered praise for the CJC. When it came turn for Lawayne Hopkins to speak, he broke into tears -- struggling to thank the staff for changing his life.

“I don’t really like sitting around and talking about my feelings," Hopkins said later. “But when I’m talking to people who are like me -- that are addicts like me, I can express my feelings a little more.”

With that, Hopkins hopped on his bicycle and pedaled off down Polk Street.


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