Judge Noel A. Kramer is willing to deal. She tells Robert Lundy, who stands before her in D.C. Superior Court charged with possession of cocaine, that she'll keep him out of jail on one condition: He must agree to see an education counselor.
A few days later, Lundy is back in court, bringing good news. After seeing the counselor, he wants to get his GED, enter a drug treatment program and find a job.
"I'm very happy to hear that," Kramer says. If Lundy, 22, follows that plan, prosecutors have agreed to drop the cocaine charge. But Kramer, noticing Lundy's long, shaggy hair, isn't quite done nudging the defendant.
"Are you planning on going out and looking for a job today?" Kramer asks. Lundy says he is. "Then, you might consider getting a haircut," Kramer says with a smile.
This frank exchange about personal lives is an everyday part of a new initiative in the District known as Community Court. One of 30 such programs throughout the nation, and the first in the region, the D.C. Community Court was launched Sept. 23 to help small-time offenders break the criminal habit while giving something back to the community.
Other courts often resolve cases by accepting plea bargains or imposing conditions that allow defendants to avoid jail. But community courts are unique in that judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are focused from the outset on addressing personal problems that prompted the criminal behavior.
Considered a natural extension of "community policing" -- the policing method credited with lowering crime rates in the 1990s -- community court is trumpeted by its advocates as the court of the future because of its problem-solving approach.
In the D.C. program, Kramer handles most misdemeanor cases out of the 6th Police District in the eastern part of the city. The idea is to bring the court closer not only to the defendants but also to the community, and Kramer often leaves the courthouse for neighborhood meetings to learn about the impact that "quality-of-life" offenses have on people's lives.
Kramer calls the approach a "sea change" in the way the court deals with crimes.
Many of the more than 14,000 misdemeanor cases flowing into the courthouse each year involve people who keep cycling through the court. If the new court can turn some of their lives around by addressing their unemployment, homelessness, drug dependency or lack of education, it will help the community and unclog the court's docket, Kramer said.
"I thank God that something like this has occurred," Lundy said after his court hearing. "I have waited a long time to get some help like this."
Kramer, an 18-year veteran of the bench, is the only judge assigned to the D.C. program. But if the program works in the 6th District, court officials say they hope to expand it city-wide.
"The point of the 6D Community Court is to find out what's going on in that person's life, and see how we can help them," Kramer said.
The Community Court works like this: A person arrested in the 6th District on a misdemeanor charge -- possession of drugs, shoplifting, simple assault, prostitution or theft -- is brought before Kramer soon after being taken into custody. The most common cases involve drug possession and prostitution offenses. The court does not handle felony cases or matters involving minors or domestic violence.
From the start, Community Court handles criminal cases in a nontraditional way. Instead of digging in for months of legal battles, the prosecutor and defense attorney huddle before the matter is called to decide if the defendant can be helped in a way that would prevent future trouble and make amends to the community.
"In an ordinary case, the prosecutor gets there, and without looking at the circumstances of the case, says, 'I'm going to send you to jail.' And the defense attorney comes in and does the same thing and says, 'I'm going to keep you out of jail.' But no one is looking at the causes and effects," Kramer said.
Once the attorneys and defendant conclude their talks, Kramer is called. In most cases, defendants don't plead guilty. Instead, the charges stand until the court-ordered resolution is completed; then the charges typically are dismissed. If defendants decline to participate -- and are later tried and convicted -- Kramer said she will take their refusal into account at sentencing.
In the usual arraignment court, "there's no time for in-depth conversation," said Kramer, who also is presiding judge of the court's criminal division. "There's no time for resolution . . . With this new court, a resolution is explored on that first day. The result is that in two months, I've only set about eight trial dates. That's nothing."
The court-appointed defense bar and the U.S. attorney's office have signed on to the concept.
"In D.C., for as long as I can remember, it's been about fighting each other," said Joseph Jorgens III, an attorney with the court-appointed defense bar. "This represents a change in the atmosphere. Now, we're trying to solve problems rather than just looking at the moment of the crime. . . . If we can expand this to the whole city, what a much better city we'd have."
Clifford T. Keenan, chief of the Superior Court division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said prosecutors view it the same way.
"What's always been missing in D.C. is we have never had the court involved in the process," Keenan said. "We're looking to offer alternative disposition options, rather than just looking for someone to be punished. I think the bottom line to all of this is that simply processing a person through the system without figuring out a way to help them stop the vicious cycle doesn't do the individual or the system any good."
Speaking with Jorgens at a recent community meeting, Keenan assured 6th District residents that prosecutors will remain tough on serious crimes in the area.
"We're not just about the touchy-feely approach," Keenan said. "We're still talking about taking care of business. But when you start with small-time offenders, you can prevent the criminals from eventually heading down the path toward serious crimes."
Patterned after the success of a two-year-old community court in Brooklyn, the District's version has won cooperation from a consortium of city agencies, including the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency and the Department of Employment Services.
But it remains a work in progress. Although a drug treatment program is in place, Kramer said such gaps as a need for more accessible mental health treatment, child care and employment services remain.
Officials are trying to make arrangements with a variety of programs that would allow defendants to give something back to the community, such as picking up trash or removing graffiti. Kramer said the court hopes to coordinate its efforts with the D.C. Department of Public Works and other agencies so that work crews, sent out to pick up trash, can receive new recruits from the court.
As of Nov. 13, Kramer had released 58 defendants to be supervised by the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, according to Janice Bergin, the agency's operations director. Of those, 36 are being tested for drugs, and eight are in drug treatment. Five were told by Kramer to take such steps as getting a GED, Bergin said.
Charles Jones, associate director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services, said his agency is eager to help people coming out of the Community Court find jobs. Today the first four defendants from the Community Court will begin a three-week "life skills" training program as a precursor to employment, Jones said.
Rufus G. King III, the chief judge at D.C. Superior Court, said that it's too early to measure the program's success, and that change will take time.
"We're not so naive to think that this will stop crime. But what we hope to do is at least slow down the revolving door. It's going to take some time," King said. "It's going to start slow, but we want to get it right."
The community court philosophy has been successful in many places, legal experts said. In the nation's first community court -- the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan, founded in 1993 -- neighborhood prostitution arrests in the court's first two years dropped by more than 60 percent. Illegal vending arrests also dropped sharply.
But critics contend that the court's lofty goals work better on paper than they do in real life. They argue that a court's job is to blindly parse out justice, not play social worker.
Some defense attorneys in cities with community courts complain that their clients stand to face more jail time if they fail to comply with the judge's behavior-altering whip, said David Rottman, of the Williamsburg-based National Center for State Courts, who has studied several so-called "problem-solving" courts around the country.
Rottman said money is one reason the idea hasn't expanded beyond 30 jurisdictions. The court can create new financial burdens, he said. In addition, it can become unwieldly as it grows to cover more parts of the community.
"All these courts require an upfront investment of time, resources and energy," said Greg Berman, director for the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based organization that helped pioneer the community court concept.
Many ideas for community courts, including one in Baltimore, fizzled. Others ran out of money.
Although officials intend to apply for a $250,000 grant from the city for court staff and consultants, the D.C. program initially won't use any court funds beyond the Superior Court's regular operating budget. For now, it must rely on community involvement and social programs at a time when government spending has been curtailed, which could become problematic, Kramer said.
But the Community Court can bring other savings, Kramer and others said. By cutting back the number of hearings on misdemeanor cases, officials will reduce the number of times that police officers must appear. That could generate millions in savings on police overtime, they said.
Despite the current gaps and potential problems, people who turned out for a recent meeting in Northeast Washington with Kramer, Keenan, Jorgens and King endorsed the idea.
"It sounds like a very good program," said Elizabeth Travers, a neighborhood resident. "With the help of the community, it could work. . . .It's a new program and you have to iron out the kinks, but I'm glad we're trying something."