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Measure would strengthen community courts

Senior Editor News in Photos

Lawmakers are encouraging expansion of Florida’s 170 problem-solving courts.

Rep. Stan McClainThe House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee voted unanimously March 19 to advance HB 919, a measure that would authorize chief judges in all of Florida’s 20 circuits to establish “community courts.”

“They address underlying causes of crime and reduce recidivism,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala. “Funding for community courts will generally come from sources other than the state.”

Under the proposal, community courts would be established by administrative order and overseen by an advisory committee consisting of the chief judge, state attorney, public defender, and community service providers willing to treat suspects charged with misdemeanors.

The concept, which requires a non-adversarial approach, encourages court officials to work with local communities to tailor court programs to meet specific needs, McClain said.

Bill sponsors see the homeless court that began hearing cases in the 17th Circuit in January as a perfect model.

Chief Judge Jack Tuter spent 10 months researching national trends before launching the special docket with the help of a two-year, $200,000 federal grant from the non-profit Center for Court Innovation.

The first cases, witnessed by Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson, included defendants charged with open container violations in Broward County. At least one homeless man tearfully agreed to enter an alcohol treatment program and perform community service as part of his sentence.

Tuter has complained that jailing the homeless and other low-level suspects can be a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“It costs an average of $140 a day to keep people in jail, where we have to house and care for them,” Tuter said. “And we’ve got people on dialysis, we’ve got people on chemotherapy, it’s enormously expensive.”

Several hours before the community courts legislation advanced, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice voted unanimously to approve SB 910.

Sponsored by Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, the measure would expand the types of defendants eligible for veterans courts to include those who were dishonorably discharged, military contractors or who served in militaries allied with the United States.

“We’ve had great success with veterans courts, the judges have just picked the ball up and run with it,” Gainer said.

Veterans courts are designed to deal with the same alcohol, drug abuse and mental-health problems that often lead to dishonorable discharges, Gainer said, so expanding eligibility only makes sense. Program coordinators will screen out any “bad actors” who don’t deserve to be in veteran’s court, Gainer said.

The measure was supported by Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, a pioneer of mental-health courts in the 11th Circuit.

Only the week before, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21-0 to approve SB 7020, a measure that would raise Florida’s $300 felony theft threshold to $750.

Reformers say the move would represent a milestone in a state that hasn’t increased the threshold since 1986.

The same measure would mandate the establishment of a veteran’s court in every judicial circuit in Florida. All but four circuits have done so to date.