Community Court to offer options besides jail for suspects

Sean C. Morgan

The motive behind many crimes committed locally doesn’t always flow from some deep, dark malevolent place in which perpetrators are bent on world domination or harming their neighbors and community.

Rather, some suspects brought before Sweet Home Municipal Court are there simply because they made poor choices that affected the course of their lives, prompting antisocial and illegal behavior.

For some, their crimes may even be the result of a mental health problem or even a matter of survival, like the protaganist in the story “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean, who served a prison sentence in 19th-century France for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. 

Those realities are the driving force behind a new “Community Court” that is being launched in Sweet Home.

In Sweet Home, each defendant is different, said Judge Larry Blake, but the Municipal Court has not been equipped to deal with the underlying cause of their criminal behavior. That’s just about to change, based on a new program Blake and Police Chief Jeff Lynn have developed with court staff and local agencies and organizations.

Blake will preside over Sweet Home’s first “Community Court” in an effort to address problems that cause crime – and to help people escape those circumstances. Eight agencies and organizations have committed to attending community court to help those defendants.

Police Chief Jeff Lynn came up with the idea last year, Blake said. About the same time, Blake had been in a judges association meeting that featured a presentation on a community court in Eugene. The idea is not unique, but it remains relatively uncommon.

Lynn said he learned of the concept at an Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police meeting. He started approaching different agencies about the concept. Not one of them hesitated to be a part of it.

Blake, Court Clerk Carol Moffet and court staff when to Eugene to observe the court, Blake said. “We liked what we saw,” and they began developing the idea for Sweet Home and reaching out to other agencies and organizations.

Blake said Moffet has been the brains behind the development of the program in Sweet Home.

“What we’re envisioning, we’ll look at criminal citations or criminal cases involving defendants who would be better served by trying to get resources (from) out of the community,” Blake said – resources such as drug and alcohol or mental health counseling, shelter, food and medical services.

Some people steal because they need food, Blake said. Others may have a mental health issue. When they come before the judge, they may be able to avoid a criminal conviction by accessing the appropriate agencies to get help, whether it is better access to food or mental health treatment.

“The whole idea is to change behavior,” Lynn said. “A lot of the behavior we’ll be seeing are (from) a variety of root causes. It gets at the root of the behavior, why it’s happening.”

Drug and alcohol and mental health issues “are in play in the vast majority of livability problems the court is going to try to tackle,” Lynn said.

Common charges facing many chronic offenders – who seemingly are constantly in court for various violations – include third-degree theft, second-degree criminal trespass, second-degree disorderly conduct and driving while suspended, Blake said.

“We’ve had some TBI (traumatic brain injury) folks come in, people with serious cognitive issues. Although they meet the criteria to be in the criminal justice system, I don’t think it serves them.”

In traditional criminal court, “we’re not doing anything,” Lynn said. “Let’s try something different.”

Jail is not an effective response to someone with mental health issues, but if they can regularly take their medications, for example, their lives will improve, Blake said.

“It’s a non-criminal resolution to a criminal charge,” the judge said, and “it’s a significant (enough) number to where we as a court decided to do something about it.”

“Our goal is to help people,” Moffet said.

The Municipal Court has a number of existing cases in which Community Court may be helpful, Blake said, and the staff will try to assign those cases to the first Community Court date.

When they go to the Community Court, they will be assigned a mentor, who will help them fill out an intake form, Blake said. The mentor will check with the accused about their ability to obtain food or shelter and whether they have mental health or problems with substance abuse.

In the back of the room, the visiting agencies will be set up and ready to begin working with the individuals, Blake said. He will refer the defendant to the the agencies and set additional court dates to check on the defendant’s progress.

At some point, six months for example, if the defendants do what the court has asked of them, such as treatment, charges facing them may be dismissed, Blake said.

The court staff see people on a daily basis who need these kinds of resources, he said. Rather than sending them out of town, they can access the resources here in Sweet Home immediately.

“They’re more likely to use the resources,” Blake said.

While Sweet Home is taking a cue from Eugene, as Eugene took a cue from Spokane, Wash., “the City of Sweet Home has its own special needs,” he added.

Eugene can send someone to a shelter, Blake said. “We have to deal with what we have here. What we’re trying to do is make it specific to Sweet Home.”

The court is working with eight agencies and organizations, including Community Health Centers of Benton and Linn County, Samaritan Health Rural Outreach, CHANCE Recovery, Community Services Consortium, Linn-Benton Mental Health, Linn County Alcohol and Drug, Exodus Recovery Services and Country Counseling.

“I think it’s a great attempt at solving (the problems),” said Sweet Home native Dianna Huenergardt, who will represent Community Services Consortium at Community Court. “I’m absolutely ecstatic they’re starting something like this.”

It goes beyond the court and criminal justice system, said Huenergardt, who was a clerk at Sweet Home Municipal Court until about four years ago. “These agencies are coming together to move into the Sweet Home area.”

Those agencies work together well in other areas, through the Live Longer program in Lebanon, Huenergardt said, but they haven’t has as much presence in Sweet Home. Now they’ll be able to “wrap resources around those who need them” and treat the core issues – not just the symptoms.

CSC provides a variety of support services, ranging from housing and education to work and energy assistance, Huenergardt said. “Life happens to all of us,” and CSC’s goal is to “help in times of crisis.”

In another position with CSC, Huenergardt said, she has seen homeless people committing crimes for years.

“We get them homed, and several of them have not committed a crime since then,” Huenergardt said. The problem is often that they don’t know what is available to help them and how to reach out to resource providers.

Someone needs to come alongside people in need and work with them to address what’s lacking, Huenergardt said. Such individuals can face a variety of obstacles and may need help just getting a Social Security card, birth certificate or simply identification.

Sometimes defendants “are stuck” in the court system, Huenergardt said.

“I’m really thankful to Judge Blake for coming up with this. I think it’s going to be a great thing for Sweet Home. My boss and I came over when they got a hold of CSC. I was so excited my boss allowed me to take this on. It’s really important to me living in Sweet Home.”

“I think criminal justice works well when it works well,” Blake said. “Sometimes it can do better when it’s not being a criminal justice system.”

“I’m excited for it,” Lynn said. “The exciting part of it is the agencies that are going to be involved have really stepped up.”