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City eyes new kind of court.

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

With Eugene's controversial downtown exclusion zone about to end, the city will explore whether to start a "community court" to deal with low-level lawbreakers.

The court could require offenders to do community service, make restitution or undergo drug or mental health treatment rather than spend time in jail or pay fines - the penalties often used against lawbreakers.

The court idea was one of four proposals brought to the City Council on Wednesday, as it considered options to improve public safety downtown after the exclusion zone expires on Nov. 30.

The council generally liked the four ideas and encouraged city employees to pursue them.

"I'm thrilled by this community court proposal," said Mayor Kitty Piercy, who added that the city should seek grants to help pay for it.

However, some councilors said panhandling and crime remain problems downtown, and those must be addressed.

Residents are still being hassled by panhandlers and aggressive youths, northeast Councilor George Poling said.

"There has been a lot of positive activity in the downtown area, but not enough to solve our problems," he said.

Besides the community court, Eugene officials recommended that the city continue supporting events and businesses that bring people downtown, conduct an analysis to determine whether the downtown needs more public restrooms, and decide whether to allow certain drug offenses to be prosecuted in Municipal Court.

New York, Portland have set up courts

Community courts are neighborhood- focused courts that require offenders to do community service, make restitution or undergo treatment rather than spend time in the lockup or pay fines, said Cheryl Stone, Eugene Municipal Court administrator.

Many offenders now do not serve sentences because the staffing shortage in the Lane County Jail means that few beds are available, she said.

Community courts have been established in New York City, Portland and other cities. They also process cases more quickly than traditional municipal courts, Stone said.

A case might take two or three months to settle in municipal court, but "a community court could resolve things in a matter of weeks," she said.

How the court would be funded, who would pay for the drug, alcohol or other treatment of indigent offenders and other questions have yet to be answered.

The council would have final say over whether to approve the court.

City officials will spend the next several months researching the court idea with the help of the Center for Court Innovation, a federally funded agency, and interns from the University of Oregon, Stone said.

Social agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys and others will be consulted, she said.

"It's a pretty significant shift from a traditional court environment that requires a lot of planning and forethought," Stone said.

The exclusion zone ordinance was approved by the council five years ago amid controversy. It has allowed authorities to ban certain offenders from a 20-block area of downtown if they are accused, not convicted, of certain crimes. No one is banned from downtown at the request of police without a judge first reviewing the request.

Critics of the ordinance said police unfairly used the zone to ban homeless people from the city center. Civil libertarians don't like the zone because it allows authorities to ban people from the designated portion of downtown for 90 days without first being convicted of a crime.

However, downtown merchants and others have supported the ordinance, saying it has helped police remove chronic troublemakers and cut crime downtown.

Now, the ordinance appears ready to go out with barely a whimper. That's because authorities are booting far fewer people from downtown through the ordinance than before.

Nine people banned in 11 months

Last year, with a council majority opposed to keeping the exclusion zone on the books much longer, the council changed the ordinance so only people who are accused of serious crimes can be banned from the city center.

Possessing small amounts of marijuana, trespassing and other relatively minor crimes were dropped from the list of offenses that trigger 90-day exclusions, although people cited or arrested for those offenses are still being prosecuted as they normally would be.

From last September through July, police issued 20 exclusion notices, according to police statistics.

In those cases, judges approved 90-day bans for seven people and one-year exclusions for two people. The remaining cases were either dismissed by judges for various reasons or were withdrawn by police.

North-central Councilor Mike Clark and Poling said they didn't want the exclusion zone to end, but they knew they were in the council minority.

"With the success that we are seeing downtown, it's the wrong time to end it," Clark said.

Southwest Councilor Chris Pryor asked Police Chief Pete Kerns if he was comfortable with the zone ending in two months.

"The reality is that we are able to use it so rarely, it's as if we don't have an exclusion ordinance," Kerns said.

Panel comes up with four ideas

The four ideas came from a committee that included Police Capt. Karl Durr, Municipal Court Presiding Judge Wayne Allen and Assistant City Manager and Planning and Development Director Sarah Medary.

That group was inspired by the recommendations of an earlier committee of residents and public officials who were asked to come up ways for the city to transition from the exclusion zone,

Their ideas ranged from developing alternative sentencing options for people who commit crimes in downtown, to putting more rest rooms in the city center, and allowing certain crimes to be prosecuted by the city in municipal court. The latter idea was recommended because budget cuts in the Lane County District Attorney's Office means that some crimes do not get prosecuted.

The need for more downtown restrooms has arisen, mainly because public urination and defecation has become a problem in the city center even though two public restrooms are located in the downtown parking garages, the Parcade and Overpark.

The public restroom analysis will use a review method that city officials use in evaluating many decisions.

Called the "triple bottom line," the analysis will consider the environmental, social and financial aspects involved with adding more restrooms in the city center.
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Title Annotation:Eugene Government; As the downtown exclusion ordinance nears its end, a different way of dealing with minor offenders is proposed
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 26, 2013
Words:1021
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