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The 54th Street Community Court specializes in targeting minorities, the poor, the homeless, disabled veteran vendors and street artists accused of "violating" the community. These "violations" usually involve nothing more than being in the area. It is neither a court of equal justice nor of constitutional law. This "court" functions as a mechanism for business interests and local community "activists" to harass and eliminate so-called "undesirables" whom the police are unable to focus attention on while dealing with legitimate issues of public safety and crime.
Like the 54th Street Court on which it is modeled the goal of CB#2's Court is to address so-called "quality of life" violations rather than robberies, rapes or serious criminal offenses. According to Gerson's outline, "Late night hours would be utilized by the police to bring individuals they find engaged in illicit activity to the court for immediate intake." The "illicit activities" would presumably include displaying art, playing a radio, loitering, panhandling, sleeping on the street, distributing handbills, vending or holding an open beer.
CB#2's proposed court would not just be a vehicle for police activity. Local residents would be encouraged to identify quality of life violators and bring them before the court. "Community residents...must have standing to initiate 'citizen suits' alleging the violation of the administrative code...[by] signing a petition or [by] the endorsement of the community board." While the initial target of this neighborhood "cleanup" will be "outsiders", the outline acknowledges that, "...most such alleged violations involve accusations among neighbors, including neighboring residents and businesses". In other words, anyone with a petty grudge against his or her neighbor will now have a means of dragging them into court on the pretext of having violated their "life quality".
Nevertheless, CB#2 does not intend to sentence defendants to actual jail time. "Our Community Court would never impose jail sentences. In addition to imposing fines, the Court would utilize alternative sentencing for persons who plead guilty or are found guilty of criminal violations. The court would retain jurisdiction over the sentenced defendant until he or she completes their sentence. Persons who refuse to complete their sentence, and repeat offenders, would be referred to the regular criminal court system, where jail time remains an option." Alternative sentencing includes cleaning and sweeping CB#2's streets, painting buildings and doing landscaping and maintenance for the "community".
Barbara Feldt, a community activist from the 54th Street Court was a guest speaker at the meeting and gave us some idea of just how this "alternative sentencing" works. "My personal interest is in maintaining trees", she explained. "So I call up the 54th Street Court Supervisor and have them send over defendants, who I supervise in maintaining the trees in my neighborhood". When I commented that this sounded a bit like legalized slavery, she became offended and assured me that she had never profited in a personal way from any of the crews assigned to work under her direction.
The trend of developing Community Courts goes hand in hand with the spread of B.I.D.s (Business Improvement Districts). Business and community "leaders" are dissatisfied with the delays caused by bothersome constitutional protections such as the First Amendment, due process and civil rights, and the fact that many judges dismiss quality of life cases because they know the defendants were arrested due to their race or social status.
Admittedly, this is an ingenious return to the plantation system which helped build this nation in the 17th and 18th centuries. Community Court convict-defendants usually wear orange or other easily identifiable coveralls emblazoned with the courts' logo while working out their sentences in the community. Ms. Feldt calls this forced labor, "...giving something back to the community".
Rather than creating jobs or addressing social inequality, this system puts poor people to work as a punishment for being visible in an otherwise middle- class or wealthy community. Community Courts are similar to the vigilante justice practiced by groups like the Klu Klux Klan and can ultimately lead to the kind of police state that existed in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. There, every citizen acted as a police informer reporting the real or imaginary transgressions of foreigners, peddlers, outsiders and eventually, their own neighbors. The motivation is blatantly racist and classist. In the Manhattan D.A.'s words it is, "A bad idea whose time has come".
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