Marion County's "Court that Cares" 

All of the plastic molded chairs in the corridor of the courthouse are occupied. Deputy David Jones is ushering a few stragglers through a lone metal detector, directing the newcomers to "have a seat." He then turns his attention to the assembled group.

"What do you have in there, Mr. Nathaniel?" Jones asks with a mock sternness. "You're not hiding any contraband in that are you?"

Nathaniel, a man in his late 50s, looks up from the billfold he had been absent-mindedly sorting through and peers at the deputy,

"Ain't nothing in here," he answers. "I don't even have $2 in here." Nathaniel pauses and considers, "I ain't even got no cigarettes neither."

Jones seizes on the line and speaks the next lyric of the famous Roger Miller song, "Ah, but ... two hours of pushin' broom buys an 8-by-12 four-bit room."

Nathaniel catches on and both men sing the next line, "I'm a man of means by no means King of the Road." Jones is much too proud of himself for this to have been a rehearsed number - this is true improv.

But Jones did not engage Nathaniel in an attempt to entertain the early morning assemblage. His motivation is slightly more altruistic. Jones' playfulness is gone the next instant as he addresses the man in a stern tone. "I want to talk to you before you go in there. I had a gentleman so upset last week he walked out of the panel. I don't know what Mr. Taxter says to you guys in there, but he can get some people angry. Now, I know you tend to have something to say, but I don't want to see you coming in here wearing an orange jumpsuit, so bite your tongue if you have to, but don't get pissed off."

Jones adds, "I know we've had this talk before. He expects you to participate in the discussions, but just do what you have to and just get through the class."

Nathaniel has returned his wallet to pocket; his attention is focused on the deputy. He nods and closes his eyes. "I just want to get through this."

Anyone who has ever spent the day at the City-County Building with its maze of courtrooms and trains of shackled inmates would find the idea of getting directions or even the time of day from a Marion County sheriff's deputy a daunting task. But this isn't the City-County building. This courthouse is less than a mile away, in nearby Fountain Square.

This is the self-proclaimed "court that cares."

Superior Court 12

The "court that cares" is in actuality Superior Court 12, Marion County's 7-year-old Community Court. Tina Hayes, the court's coordinator, is generally credited with coining the informal moniker of the court. "It's more than a pet name. I really believe that our court is different," Hayes says of the nickname. "You go downtown and most of the cases like the ones we deal with here end up with a sentence of time served and maybe a fine. The defendants are just a number and no one benefits from that."

Hayes explains that the Marion County Community Court is based on a model pioneered in New York City nearly a decade ago. "The idea was to clean up Times Square and I don't think many people would argue that the Community Court there hasn't been successful. Times Square had a really seedy reputation not all that long ago. I don't know if you have been there recently, but it seems more like Disneyland now."

In fact, much of the renewal of Times Square can be credited to Midtown-Manhattan's Community Court. The court has been largely successful in dealing with public intoxication, prostitution, vandalism, public indecency and other so-called quality of life infractions that contribute to urban blight. Marion County's Community Court was created with much the same mission in mind.

"The idea is to make defendants understand that these aren't victimless crimes, that their actions have a real impact on the community. That doesn't happen when people just get shuffled through the system downtown," Hayes says.

The court that cares deals exclusively with non-violent offenders charged with minor infractions. In most cases, defendants are offered the opportunity to have the charges against them dropped after meeting a series of community service hours, community meetings and classes. There are no trials in Community Court; only defendants who plead guilty are eligible to participate. Pleas and sentencing agreements can be reached within weeks of an arrest. Because of this many cases and sentences are completed within a month; it can take twice that long before a case ever sees a judge in other Marion County courtrooms.

Hayes considers the court's mission to be two-fold: "First, we want to hold defendants accountable to the community. Second, and maybe more importantly, we want to connect people to the resources and social services they need to address the reasons like homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues that contributed to them getting arrested in the first place."

Kelly Welker, the court's resource coordinator, is responsible for seeing that defendants are connected to those social services. Welker performs an intake evaluation on every defendant before they ever see the judge. Many of those she interviews find the idea of a court that cares to be an especially foreign concept. "Almost every day someone will ask me, 'Are you sure this is a court?'" Welker says. "They are not used to someone caring why they were arrested or trying to help them find a place to sleep that night."

Hayes admits that the court's reputation for caring for the welfare of offenders can sometimes be greeted with suspicion. "I meet with all of the new officers in South and Southeast [police] districts. A lot of new officers originally bristle at the idea of what we do here. There is a real 'What the hell is this attitude?' but once they realize what we are accomplishing, those same officers become some of our biggest fans. Before Community Court, if someone was arrested for public intoxication, for example, that person likely just paid a fine and was back doing the same thing the next night. Here we will strive to hold that person accountable and the officers grow to respect that."

This is an opinion that Metropolitan Police Department East District Commander Major Cliff Myers agrees with. "I would say that Community Court is absolutely critical to our policing strategy." Myers considers the Southeast District to be the up and coming area of Indianapolis. "I think that Fountain Square has the potential to be the next Broad Ripple and that doesn't happen without community policing and the Community Court."

"Defendants Awareness Class"

The court that cares may have won the respect of the Police Department, but that is exactly what worries Tulin Ozdegar, the civil rights program director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "I think it's wonderful that this court is helping to connect people to social services; my question would be, why do we have to arrest people to get them the help they need?"

Ozdegar admits that while she is unfamiliar with the specifics of the Indianapolis Community Court, she is concerned with what she identifies as a growing trend: the criminalization of poverty and homelessness. Ozdegar believes that courts like New York City's Mid-Town Community Court tend to be established as a means of making it more palatable to prosecute the crime of simply being poor.

"More and more cities are using aggressive panhandling and trespass or visiting a common nuisance statutes to clear the homeless off the streets and out of sight," Ozdegar explains.

In fact, most of the defendants that have passed through Community Court in recent months have been charged with public intoxication, but the types of cases that Community Court hears can vary from week to week.

The downtown police district was recently added to Community Court's area, which has already expanded to the entire southeast quarter of Marion County. Hayes acknowledges that the expansion of Community Court's jurisdiction was largely at the behest of downtown merchants concerned with aggressive panhandling and vagrancy-related issues.

Mark Taxter is the guy Deputy Jones warns people about. Taxter doesn't work very hard to dispel this image. "I try to challenge the people in these classes and that can upset certain personalities." Taxter is the conflict resolution services coordinator for the Community Prosecution Division of the Marion County Prosecutor's Office. In his weekly "Defendants Awareness Class," Taxter deals with many of the same questions Ozdegar raises about the types of crimes that the Community Court adjudicates. The class is not typically included in defendants' sentencing agreements; the class is generally assigned to defendants who have failed to complete their sentencing agreements. The DAC is quietly referred to by offenders and court personnel alike as the "Dumb Ass Class." If Taxter feels the need to challenge these students, they are in his class because they have been a challenge in every step of their sentence.

Taxter does not accept this reasoning. "A lot of people who end up here want to blame the system. Most of the charges are what can be considered victimless crimes and I hear that cops were harassing this person who wasn't hurting anyone, but the police are there because people in the neighborhood are calling and complaining to their councilman about the behavior and those council members are calling the police chief and saying, 'Do something.' Guess what, if the neighborhoods weren't being affected then those phone calls would never be made and none of us would be here."

But Ozdegar doesn't just question the sorts of cases heard at Community Court; she has reservations about the entire process. "The idea that court only deals with plea bargains is troubling in itself." Ozdegar says that too often not guilty pleas are waved in front of homeless and impoverished defendants as if the plea bargain was a get-out-of—jail-free card. "Guilty or innocent, someone with no resources is likely to accept whatever conditions will make the situation go away," Ozdegar insists.

She worries that instead of going away this can be the beginning of legal troubles for the underprivileged: "I have seen no-trespassing-in-public-places orders and employment requirements in these plea bargains. Now, someone who may have been struggling in the first place finds their situation criminalized - the next step is usually jail."

Community Court of Indianapolis does in fact sometimes make employment and stay-away orders part of sentencing, but the court seems uninterested in locking up defendants because of their standard of living. This is, after all, the court that cares.

As the Community Court's full-time resource coordinator, Kelly Welker spends a large percentage of time working to make certain that defendants have the tools they need to fulfill their obligations to the court. "None of us want to see someone having to serve a jail sentence," Welker explains. "I have seen guys in here whose sentences have been amended six or seven times. It really isn't until someone gives up on us, then the prosecutor will ask for executed jail time."

Ozdegar is not impressed, "These types of pleas lend themselves to abuse. Just because this court isn't taking advantage of these back loaded agreements doesn't make them proper. No one's freedom should depend on the whims of police and prosecutors."

Community service

If it is the case that defendants' civil rights depend on the compassion of Indianapolis' Community Court officers then it would appear those defendants are in good hands.

Jason Pinsley is driving the Community Court's work crew van and talking to Rachael Cooper on his cell phone for the second time in less than an hour. Cooper is calling again because she wants to know if the lawns are mowed yet. Pinsley explains to her he didn't get to the senior shut-ins' houses for yard work yesterday, but promises he will take care of the yards by the end of the day. Cooper will call two more times over the next hour to make sure. Pinsley turns to his crew in the back of the van, "Looks like we're not going to get to the list my boss gave me today."

Pinsley, the director of community service for the Community Court, sees his job as more than just making offenders serve community service portions of their sentences. That includes mowing the grass of elderly residents at the behest of Cooper. "To me, that's why we're out here. It's the entire point of a Community Court," Pinsley says. "I don't care what someone did to get sentenced to community service; I only care that by being here a lot of good can be done for these neighborhoods."

Pinsley's enthusiasm is contagious. "I have a couple of guys who have completed their community service and still come out every week to volunteer," he brags.

Because of budget constraints, Pinsley is now employed by the Department of Probation rather than reporting directly to the court. This limits Pinsley's ability to complete a lot of the projects he would like to do in the neighborhoods within Community Court's jurisdiction. Pinsley admits that this forces him to sometimes be creative with the schedule his supervisor at the Department of Probation gives him.

As Pinsley unloads lawnmowers in front a 93-year-old woman's modest house on Pleasant Avenue on the Southeastside, he says, "If it were up to the Probation Department we wouldn't even be allowed to mow an old woman's yard."

Losing the focus?

If Tulin Ozdegar's view of the Community Court as a factory for processing the disadvantaged is accurate, the city budget does little to support the premise. Tina Hayes estimates that she spends about 60 percent of her time grant writing. While the court itself is funded with public money, the programs and staff that make the court unique are funded largely through grants.

Hayes finds pleading for private funds for a public court to be no simple task. "People expect a court to be funded by tax dollars," Hayes notes. "I spent a lot of time explaining how we work and why we are different."

Hayes is excited that the recently passed city budget fully funds all of Community Court's existing programs. Yes, this will allow Pinsley to again report to Hayes rather than the Probation Department. But this doesn't mean that Hayes' grant writing days are over.

Hayes wants to see at least three more Community Courts in the city within the next few years and that will take more funding.

Cooper, president of the South East Community Organization, has been one of Community Court's biggest supporters, but she wonders if the court hasn't already grown too large. She believes that the court should be focusing on expanding its programs rather than expanding its jurisdiction. Cooper thinks this has caused the Community Court to lose its community focus, especially when it comes to community service crews. "Jason is great about finding time for neighborhood projects, but if this is supposed to be a community court then why are the crews working out at Crown Hill Cemetery?

"It isn't a community court anymore; it's just a court," Cooper laments.

Pinsley echoes Cooper's frustration. "If I have a crew working at the State Fairgrounds or picking up trash on the Northside I wonder who is taking care of our neighborhoods - the answer is no one." Pinsley spends at least part of his days off mowing grass and painting homes, making up for the loss of the near-Eastside community's man-hours.

Not everyone in the community agrees that the court has grown too big for its community. Rosey Stockdale sits on the Community Court's weekly Community Impact Panel. These panels are key to the Community Court's philosophy. Any resident of the Southeast quadrant of the city is invited to explain to offenders how their actions have adversely affected their neighborhood. Stockdale describes the meetings slightly differently: "How often do you get a chance to gripe at the people who annoy you? I get to do it every week."

Stockdale's personal pet peeve is prostitution. For decades, she says, her East 10th Street neighborhood had been overrun with streetwalkers and the police were able to do little to stem the problem. Stockdale points to Community Impact Panels and the court's more specific Prostitution Panels as the first truly effective measures she has seen from city government. "For most of my life I felt like this problem simply wasn't going away; since the Community Court was started I feel like we are beginning to get a handle on the problem."

Back in court

Bailiff Mark Bunny will not call today's Community Court session to order for another 37 minutes, but there is already a quiet moan from the back row of the gallery. The moan grows into louder moaning, which increases in volume to an earsplitting wailing. An earlier arriving defendant with obvious disabilities and his partner have been allowed early access to the courtroom, but the stress of the legal process is beginning to take its toll.

The scene is not missed by the court clerk. "Is he OK?" she asks; her voice is concerned yet still warm. "Do you need an ambulance?"

The howling man doesn't acknowledge the clerk's query. His partner, who has his distraught lover in a bear hug by this time, responds, "No, please, he is just having a small seizure. No hospitals please. That's how we ended up in this mess in the first place."

The clerk studies the men as if she doubts that medical intervention will be unnecessary, then returns to the stack of paperwork in front of her as the man gently restrains and tries to calm his companion. But soon the spectacle escalates; the screeching man is in tears and pacing aimlessly about the courtroom.

The clerk summons the bailiff and court deputies. Both men in the gallery are in tears.

Bunny learns that the men are in court because of an incident not at all unlike the one they find themselves in at this moment.

The arrest that brought the overwrought man to court today occurred after he sought medical treatment in the emergency room due to a similar seizure and episode of disorientation.

Bunny ponders the situation. There seems to be little chance that the man rocking back and forth in his seat and screaming is attempting to con the veteran court officer.

"Hold on, let me talk to the prosecutor."

The bailiff walks to the district attorney's table and simply asks, "Kathy?"

But prosecutor Kathy Infanger is a step ahead of the bailiff. She hands Bunny a folder and says, "Yes, yes, absolutely."

Bunny takes a knee to explain the situation to the confused and agitated defendant, who is slowly starting to recover from the effects of his seizure. "You can go home now and you don't have to come back. It's taken care of - there's nothing to be upset about."

Bunny turns to the man's partner, "Are you sure we can't call an ambulance?'

"No, no more hospitals, please." The couple has almost left the courtroom when the man adds a meek, "Thank you."

It doesn't take much imagination to predict the likely result if this scene had played out in any other courtroom in the city. A second arrest would seem much more likely than a dismissal of the original charges.

But does this support Tullin Ozdeger's contention that the fundamental fairness of a Community Court depends too much on the benevolence of those who run the court? Tina Hayes isn't willing to agree that the court that cares depends entirely on the goodwill of its staff, but she certainly believes it beats the alternative. She submits that this actually might be one of Community Court's greatest advantages.

"We actually get to know everyone who walks through these doors, some more than others, but the people here are more than docket numbers. That is sort of the point. I would argue that is reason enough that there should be a court like this one on every side of town."


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