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Community Court aims for positive changes

As Published in the March 22nd, Lynchburg News & Advance

Shongo Irving’s January arrest for marijuana possession made him realize there were things about his life he wanted to change.

“To make a long story short, I prefer the positive over the negative,” Irving, 23, said.

And “positive” change is something several judges, area attorneys, community leaders, and social service workers are looking for as they test-drive a pilot program called Lynchburg Community Court (LCC).

Irving is one of the first people in the city to go through it.

Developed in New York City during the early 1990s, the idea behind community courts is that they hold people accountable for the laws they break - shoplifting, for example - while trying to address underlying problems - such as drug addiction - that may have led a person to commit the crime.

“This is an idea that’s taking root all over the place,” Julius Lang, a director with the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, said of the community court model’s finding an audience in countries like Australia and South Africa.

Nationwide there are 30 community courts operating - LCC began in January with help from a $250,000 federal grant.

“It’s something that will hopefully make a difference in the community,” Judge Ed Burnette said of LCC - the first court of its kind in Virginia. “It comes under the heading of ‘Problem Solving Court.’”

The LCC route is only offered to Lynchburg defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanors.

Right now LCC meets once a month in Lynchburg’s General District and Juvenile & Domestic Relations courts. So far, roughly 25 people have signed on to participate.

Each case is reviewed on an individual basis with a defendant’s prior record screened by a prosecutor before they are asked to participate, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and LCC coordinator Shannon Hadeed said.

Anyone with a violent criminal history will not be allowed to participate in LCC, Hadeed said.

“(In LCC) you’re fashioning a sentence to fit both the person and the crime,” she said.

The hope is that the LCC will reduce crime in the city, reduce the number of short-term jail sentences and give judges increased sentencing options for non-violent offenses, she said.

Irving said he is working through 78 hours of community service and is required to hunt for a job. Community service is required, in part so the public can see offenders making restitution, Hadeed said.

Participating in community court required Irving to plead guilty to the possession charge. But if he abides by all the guidelines the court laid out for him, the charge against him will be dismissed.

In essence, a dismissal is like being found “not guilty.”

However, the fact that a person was charged with that crime is not erased, Hadeed said. A defendant signed on with the LCC who doesn’t complete the court’s guidelines could be convicted of the criminal charge and receive a traditional sentence that can include fines and jail time.

Community court does not impose fines or jail time on defendants who follow the court’s guidelines.

While authorities hope to expand the LCC program citywide, for now it targets adult offenders 25 years old and younger, living mostly in the downtown area. LCC is available citywide to juvenile offenders.