Wilmington Community Court aims to connect low-level offenders with services

Community groups offer support and guidance outside the county courthouse in Wilmington as part of the launch of the community court concept. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Community groups offer support and guidance outside the county courthouse in Wilmington as part of the launch of the community court concept. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

A new community court in Wilmington, Delaware, will rely less on fines and prison time for low-level misdemeanors as it focuses more on helping defendants solve problems through treatment and even employment assistance.

The Wilmington Community Court is quite different than a traditional courtroom. Defendants might be ordered to attend job training or take part in a treatment program instead of spending time behind bars. Others might be required to take part in some type of restoration action, addressing vandalism or other damage they’ve caused.

“The one thing that most people who appear as defendants often need can be summed up in three letters: J-O-B,” said Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine. “The Wilmington Community Court that is now being formed will help close a critical gap in the services and programs that the courts currently offer low-level offenders.”

The court is designed to address some of the underlying factors that drive the behavior which lands defendants in court. “Part of what this is all about is recognizing that there’s not one of us here that hasn’t benefited from a second, third or fourth chance,” Strine said. “We’re all human. If we recognize each other’s fellow humanity and see the good in another person and give them that opportunity to improve, we’re all the better for it.”

It’s an effort to correct that behavior in a way that helps the community instead of just punishing the defendant. Judges outside of the community court will have discretion to assign cases to that court based on their assessment of a defendant’s situation.

“There are a variety of issues or problems that cause citizens to become involved with the criminal justice system, and a community court can focus on finding solutions that don’t necessarily involve incarceration,” said Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki. “This concept can change lives, and I’m eager to support these efforts.”

A community resource center will accompany the new court to give offenders better access to services they need. Based in the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, the resource center will provide the type of help offenders need to turn from crime and become productive members of the community.

“This help could be counseling or some other form of treatment … in some cases, it may be connecting them with a job opportunity or help finding a job, leading them to a more productive life,” said Court of Common Please Chief Judge Alex Smalls.

Community groups held a resource fair outside the courthouse Friday morning to demonstrate what type of assistance would be available in the courthouse starting next month.

“The resource center is the first step in putting together the community court,” Smalls said. “There is no person that doesn’t need service, and when they come to the court, then we try to figure out what caused them to be here and how do we help them address those needs.”

The community court will work differently than a traditional courtroom, staying open after regular hours one night a week so participants can attend without missing work or school.

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