Monthly Archives: November 2010

Dallas Community Courts Make Cleaner, Safer Streets a Top Priority

Dianne Gibson, the manager of the community courts in Dallas, Texas, explains how the South Dallas Community
Court uses a combination of partnership and problem-solving to link homeless with services while eliminating neighborhood

ROBERT V. WOLF: This is Rob Wolf, director of
communications at the Center for Court Innovation. I’m recently back from Dallas where the Center for Court Innovation
sponsored with the Bureau of Justice Assistance Community Justice 2010, the first international conference of community
courts. Today I’d like to share with you a conversation I had with Dianne Gibson, who is one of the hosts of the
conference as the manager of the three community courts in Dallas. My role at the conference was to interview participants
for a video about community courts that the Center for Court Innovation is producing with support from the U.S. Bureau
of Justice Assistance. On our way to the South Dallas community court, which is one of three mentor community courts
in the United States, Dianne and I stopped at a parking lot near a carwash that had been once the site of a homeless
encampment. She described to me the conditions that used to exist there and how the community court collaborated
with various partners to address the problem.

This building here was one of the actual camp sites for homeless encampment. Also, the carwash used to have all kind
of activities. But thanks to our mayor, Mayor Tom Leppert got involved. Our councilperson, Councilwoman Carolyn Davis,
and our Southeast Dallas Police Department, the best division in Dallas, they all got involved with us, with the
city attorney, and we have made that a much better place, actually much better, much safer. And it’s really a carwash
now—not a flea market—it’s actually a carwash.

WOLF: And when you
say flea market, was it stolen goods?

GIBSON: Everything. 
I mean one Saturday I came over, and I was like you guys, there’s actually a chuck wagon over here. And it was—they
were selling everything. They were selling movies; they were selling shoes. I was like you guys—I called Ros and
told her, you cannot believe what I am looking at.

WOLF: Ros Jeffers?

GIBSON: Uh-huh. Ros Jeffers, which is the executive assistant city attorney
that’s over community prosecution, over community courts. But I just couldn’t believe it. I was like anything you
want to buy. And my joke was, girl, I think I can buy my house over here.

And how did that impact quality of life in the neighborhood?

It had a total impact. The neighbors were all complaining and they were brought to our attention. We have one neighbor
that’s a property owner next to the carwash. He actually brought a video to the court to show us that the video showed
us on the weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays, that there were actually just so many cars you couldn’t even come down
Martin Luther King Boulevard. You couldn’t get to the carwash. They were parking on his property and damaging his
sprinkler system, damaging in his grass and everything.

did you respond to the problems?

GIBSON: What we did was is that
we actually teamed together. They came in and cleaned out the entire camp. Those that had active warrants, I’m sorry
to say had to be actually transported.  Those that needed housing, we were able to try and locate them housing.

WOLF: So when you say “to clean it out,” what did the team consist of? And
how did you do it?  Was it a one-time thing? You came in, in one day?

No. We’ve done it several times. We had to do it several times in order to actually get the message across that this
is not a place to actually set up an encampment. So you have to do it at least several times before they actually
get the message that you know what, we’re going to have to move somewhere else because each time we set up, they’re
going to come back through and clean it up.

WOLF: And so, who was
actually involved? Were the police here? Were social service agencies?

Yes. Dallas police department, social service agency, TXDOT, and the community prosecution. It was all a team effort.

WOLF: And you came down at night or during the day?

GIBSON: No, during the day; during the day.

WOLF: And what’s TXDOT?

TXDOT is the highway—that does the bridges, the highway bridges and what have you. They’re the people that manage
that part of it.

WOLF: When you responded,
you said you, you know, some people with warrants had to be incarcerated or processed through the justice system.

GIBSON: Right. We tried to get an assessment. If it was treatment,
try to get them in treatment.  If it was housing, try to locate housing for them.

WOLF: Maybe you could put this in context for me. So the court
was involved, which for a traditional court would be probably an unusual thing. But for a community court, it’s kind
of part of doing business, isn’t it?

It’s everyday business with community courts because each person that comes into community court, there’s a certified
case worker there that does an assessment. Once they have been arraigned and they enter a plea of not guilty or no
contest, that person then sees a case worker. And the case worker would do a full assessment on that individual to
find out what are the underlying problems, what are some of the needs. Once they’ve identified those needs—and those
needs could be just anywhere from the fact that I just need some proper identification or I need treatment for drugs,
alcohol, job placement, job training, maybe it’s disability, or maybe it’s just somebody that needs housing—and so,
whatever that need may be, then the case worker and our job is to try and find some of our community partners to
address the need.

WOLF: One of the principles
of community court is combining punishment and help. So in addition to providing links to services and helping people
address their underlying problems whether it’s drug addiction or homelessness that might fuel criminal behavior,
how do you—where does punishment come in?

The punishment phase comes in if they can’t afford to pay the fine in court costs, then they have to come back to
this very community and actually do community service projects.  Like some of our community service people
will actually help us clean up and keep these lots clean. And that’s what they will actually come back and do. They
will come back to the very community that they committed the crime to do the cleanup. And that’s part of the punishment

WOLF: And how long has Dallas had
community courts?

GIBSON: Six years. We just
celebrated six years, September 30th.

And you recently opened your third community court.

We recently opened our third court April 2010. Thanks to our mayor, Dwaine Caraway.

WOLF: So clearly, the Dallas community responded positively to the community
court experience.

GIBSON: Yes. Thanks to
our Mayor and city council people. They have been tremendous; I mean, excellent supporters.

WOLF: And the residents like the gentleman you mentioned whose
sprinklers are being damaged by the cars and stuff, do you get support from the people who live in the community?

GIBSON: Yes. We get excellent support from the community people
especially our homeowners association president. We have a group that we call the Golden Girls. And these are just
these little senior citizens that make sure they keep us abreast of everything that’s going on.  They either
are going to call the community prosecutor. They’re going to call the court. But anything that’s going on to deteriorate
their neighborhood in any way, they’re going to let us know. We actually bring city hall into the community.

WOLF: How has the South Dallas neighborhood changed since the South
Dallas Community Court opened?

of the things that we are most proud of is the fact that now we have a 93 percent compliance rate in South Dallas.
So we’re just really excited. And in addition to that, vacant lots that used to be so, just an eyesore in the community
are no longer eyesores. In addition to that, those people that needed help, that was on the streets, that needed
treatment, that needed other services, we were able to help some of those people get off the street. And so, naturally,
we haven’t saved everybody, but we haven’t stopped trying either. But those that we did make a difference in their
lives, they are now going from being in the streets to now being productive members of society. And so, we want to
say that we made a difference in their lives. In addition to beautifying the community, like one thing is working
on that carwash now, people now on weekends can ride up and down Martin Luther King Boulevard without the traffic
congestion now. Thanks to no-parking signs and what have you. They can now actually go to the carwash and really
get a carwash.

WOLF: That’s great.


Imagine that.

GIBSON: Yes. So those are some
of the things. And so, hopefully, we have actually reduced the crime in this area. Thanks to the southeast police
division and working in partnership. So all together, what we’re trying to do is not only making a beautiful neighborhood
but making a safer neighborhood.

WOLF: Thanks,
Dianne. It’s been really interesting talking to you. And I’ve been talking to Dianne Gibson who’s the manager of
the three community courts in Dallas, Texas. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications of the Center for Court Innovation.
Thanks for listening.