Seeking Accountability

City officials respond to the facts about Eugene’s Community Court

By Morgan Theophil and Taylor Perse

The city of Eugene’s leaders have been stonily silent since Eugene Weekly first reported on the track record of their vaunted Community Court program.

That’s now changed.

In 2016, the city launched the program with a $200,000 federal grant to reduce its court caseloads and provide help for defendants who may be facing homelessness, addiction or mental illness.

An EW investigation, “An Unsuccessful Solution,” published Jan. 31, showed the court was not living up to one of its major promises and that city’s claims of success were not what they seemed.

EW used the court’s own records to show that only 17 percent of defendants eligible for the court finish the program. As a group, Community Court graduates are being convicted of crimes at the same rate as before they entered the program.

EW also found that the city had no data to track the program’s success. Nine months after the federal grant expired, city officials have yet to analyze their own data.

At the time we wrote the original story, EW asked Mayor Lucy Vinis to comment on the findings. She declined. After publishing the story, we continued to seek responses from Vinis, as well as from City Manager Jon Ruiz and members of Eugene City Council.

Vinis again declined to answer our questions, as did Ruiz. (He referred us instead to a spokesperson.)

Many city councilors had a lot to say. All praised the good intentions of the Community Court program and the help it’s given to many defendants.

But others raised questions about the program and the city’s lack of transparency regarding its true record.

Specifically, we asked officials to respond to what EW found in its investigation, including the Community Court’s low graduation rate, the unchanged recidivism rate and the city’s failure to track its own data in the program.

Here’s what they said. Responses have been edited for length and clarity:

Laura Hammond, city of Eugene community relations director (on behalf of City Manager Jon Ruiz and Mayor Lucy Vinis)

We are currently in a request for proposals process for an independent, third-party evaluation of the program. We look forward to learning more from the analysis about what is working and how we might improve the program. We will share that information with you once it is available.

Last year, staff used a point in time analysis of the data collected to provide a preliminary assessment of the number of Community Court graduates with any new criminal charges since graduation. The data set used to calculate these rates relies on criminal history information and is based on a state definition of recidivism which only counts criminal offenses (not violations or citations). Courts and correctional institutions typically only include misdemeanor or higher levels of crime when calculating recidivism.

Community Court is a voluntary program. Community Court by itself is not expected to change the volume or types of cases at Municipal Court for those who choose to not appear or choose to handle their case via the traditional process. For those who do not show up or choose not to participate in Community Court we would not expect to see the same results as those that do. The program does provide people with an option they did not have before. As we learn more and are able to increase rates of participation, we do anticipate Community Court will help ease the burden on our Municipal Court system.

As an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system, Community Court focuses on problem solving and creating community partnerships that connect people to needed services. The program and the volunteers and service providers that make this work possible help move us toward our goal of creating a community where all people are safe, valued and welcome.

Emily Semple, Ward 1 councilor

With two sets of statistics, possibly analyzed in different ways, I don’t have a confident reaction. It is unfortunate that data was not collected in a useful fashion from the beginning. I will be interested in the two-year statistical analysis.

I think Community Court is helping many people with services as well as alternatives to conventional, and often ineffective, punishments. This is important even if the numbers aren’t showing radical success at this point. I support Community Court as one of many solutions to help alleviate our homeless challenges.

The heartbreaking, and shameful, unequal arrest rates for homeless vs. housed is regrettably understandable due to the lack of sufficient resources (shelter, prevention and recovery services) required for survival. We must end the criminalization of our homeless and allow people to sleep and meet life-sustaining needs so they won’t be arrested for activities housed people do legally. I believe that would be the most successful strategy for lowering the number of court cases.

Betty Taylor, Ward 2 councilor

I am really interested in learning more from the Weekly’s research. I know that Judge [Wayne] Allen has bragged about the achievements of the Community Court. I think that the role of investigative journalism is important in informing elected officials, as well as the public.

Supposedly, council supervises the judge, but there is no clear path to, or method of, supervision.

Alan Zelenka, Ward 3 councilor

Did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jennifer Yeh, Ward 4 councilor

We have collected data on this program and are currently working to get a third-party evaluation. Community Court is a new program and waiting for two years for a review is standard for a more realistic evaluation.

Community Court gives people an alternative to the traditional justice system. It changes the focus from punitive measures to services and support which can make long-term positive outcomes.

I would like to see an evaluation of why some people chose not to complete the program and what we can do to increase graduation numbers.

The program is designed to see a positive change for those who graduate from the program. Community Court promotes responsibility and accountability through supervised community service and connections with social service providers. This combination will help to address their individual needs and improve their quality of life.

The goal related to our caseloads is to lower repeat offending, but the program will not have an effect on those not involved. Caseloads could go up or down independent of this program. More years of data would be needed to see if there is a long-term effect on caseloads that could be attributed to this program.

People find themselves in our criminal justice system for many reason and with different challenges. More focus needs to be on support, rehabilitation and wellness, and less on punishment. Focusing on getting people to a better place helps not just the individual but the whole community.

Mike Clark, Ward 5 councilor

Did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Greg Evans, Ward 6 councilor

Judge Allen came in with a vision to remake the court into a more robust program that took on a more restorative justice model, rather than a punitive one. I think the move that was made to shift that perspective was a positive move. Has it been completely successful? I think the jury is still out on that — no pun intended.

From my role as a city councilor, I’m somewhat removed from the process. We are prohibited from meddling in the day-to-day operations, and are strictly to stay on a policy level. And there’s not a lot of policy with the Municipal Court beyond the hiring process. Above all, we try to hire someone who understands what people are going through that leads them to commit crimes, and has compassion.

So from my perspective, and limited interactions with the court and people who’ve gone through the court, I think it is many times better than what it was in the past. Are there systems we need to work on? Yes, there’s always work we can continue to do.

My hope is that as the court evolves and our court becomes a light in the country regarding restorative justice. Maybe if we are doing something right, it can be someone’s first and last experience with court. It’s not perfect yet, but we are on the way there.

Claire Syrett, Ward 7 councilor

As a policy maker with the city of Eugene I support the goals of our Community Court and believe it can provide a viable alternative to the cycle of ticket-fine-ticket that many who chose to participate used to experience.

You criticize the program for not reaching “those who need it most.” The program is voluntary, and we cannot force people to participate. We have many social services and programs available to those in the greatest need whether they have received tickets or not. The purpose of Community Court is to provide an alternative to those who are ready to make a change and who qualify for it in terms of the offense for which they have been called to court.

We do have an obligation to keep finding ways to serve all those in need and I am a committed to continuing to look for more ways to do so. Community Court is a specific intervention with limited capacity at this time working to serve those who want to participate to find support and services designed to assist them in moving to a better place in their lives. I believe it has and will continue to be successful in this mission. I will be looking for ways to expand its capacity in the future so it can serve a larger number of participants.

Chris Pryor, Ward 8 councilor

I am aware that the city staff at the court are preparing a response to your questions. They know more details about the data and its interpretation than I do. I don’t have any more to add at this point. Thanks.