Community court is an alternative court system devised in the 1990s as a partnership between private organizations and state and local law enforcement and justice departments. In community court, defendants accused of minor crimes, such as criminal mischief, public drunkenness, or vandalism, are given community service duties instead of jail time and fines. Convicted defendants are also given access to substance abuse assistance and mental health personnel. Community court is aimed toward improving quality of life in neighborhoods by providing speedy justice that assists the community and attempts to prevent crime by helping convicted defendants find assistance and the tools for a lawful future.
The first modern community court, Midtown Community Court, was launched in New York in 1993, as the result of a partnership between the New York Justice System and a think tank called the Center for Court Innovation. Midtown Community Court handles the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan, an area long renowned for a high crime rate with significant levels of prostitution, drug dealing, and vandalism. Many of these low-level crimes result in a fine or a few days in jail through the traditional system, but the establishment of Midtown created an alternative solution aimed at reducing the root causes of crime in the neighborhood and improving the community through ordered community service.
With the successful integration of Midtown into the larger court system of New York, community courts soon began to gain popularity throughout the United States and some parts of the rest of the world. The resulting courts share the aims of the original, but many have their own rules that are worked out between court officials and law enforcement personnel. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, defendants are only allowed access to the community court if they agree to plead guilty. Upon completing their required community service, their conviction may be stricken from the record to give a clean slate to the former offender.
Community courts do not seek to undermine traditional justice programs, but instead try to work with court systems to provide more attention to cases that may fall below the radar of a more expansive court system. In a court that deals with murders, large-scale felonies, and other extremely important crimes, the careful management of low-level offenders is understandably not the highest priority. By creating an alternative system that deals only with low-level crime, community courts help to fight criminal problems in neighborhoods at a grassroots level.