Last February, five participants in OAR’s Advocacy and Leadership Program (ALP) put the skills they had developed to good use when they journeyed to Richmond to meet with Virginia House Delegate Patrick Hope. This meeting was the culmination of several months of work by the ALP participants who had been studying topics relevant to improving the criminal justice system, and working on their speaking skills at monthly meetings. After looking at several issues, they chose the use of “Community Courts” for certain nonviolent offenses as the topic they wished to study further.

Through additional research, ALP members learned that in a Community Court, an individual who commits a nonviolent offense receives immediate sanctions consisting of community service, which must be completed during a specified time period, rather than incarceration. The offender is also provided with needed assistance such as drug abuse treatment, educational opportunities, mental health counseling, housing assistance, etc. Representatives of the community, including the victim, are involved in determining the sanctions given to the offender. A number of communities around the country are using Community Courts, and the results have been positive. Recidivism rates for individuals who complete the sanctions are much less than the rates for offenders who have been incarcerated. An additional plus is the cost saving since Community Courts cost less to operate, and the community service work provided by the offenders provides the community thousands of dollars worth of needed services such as cleaning up parks and removing graffiti. The group then decided to advocate for the implementation of a Community Court in Arlington.

Realizing that legislative support would be key to developing such a program, the group made an appointment to speak with Delegate Hope. Although all ALP members had participated in the research and discussions, five members made the journey to Richmond. During their meeting, each of the five spoke about Community Courts and their advantages. Delegate Hope was receptive to the group’s ideas and mentioned that Arlington is hoping to soon implement a drug court, which would function in a manner similar to Community Courts but be limited to drug offenses. His recommendation was to get the drug court up and running and after it was proven successful, to add other offenses to it. He also urged the group to stay in contact with him on this issue and to do additional research on Community Courts in Virginia. As the meeting drew to a close, Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur stopped by, and the group was able to share its thoughts with her as well.

Several weeks later, another OAR volunteer (who had not been in Richmond) was speaking with Representative Hope at a social event and mentioned she volunteered for OAR. He proceeded to tell her how impressed he had been with the five individuals with whom he met and that he had found them well informed and very articulate, a well-deserved compliment to the Advocacy and Leadership Program.

By Marilyn Falksen, ALP member