Petty theft, like shoplifting bread or eating at a restaurant without paying, can subject California offenders to six months in county jail or a fine of up to $1000 — often leading them into cycles of recidivism and hindering potential employment and housing opportunities. To provide an alternative path for low-level offenders, Santa Cruz County introduced a restorative justice program called Neighborhood Court in December 2020.

The program provides an opportunity for offenders to take responsibility for their actions without, a conviction showing on their record, by connecting them to the victims and finding community-oriented solutions, as opposed to punitive measures. 

“Neighborhood Courts address criminal violations that impact the quality of life in the community and is an alternative to entering into criminal court,” said Santa Cruz District Attorney Jeff Rosell in a press release. “The purpose of the program is to: reduce recidivism, address the harm, and restore the local community, victim, and offender back into the community.” 

The Neighborhood Court has existed in California since it was established in San Francisco in 2012 and in Yolo County in 2013.  

Nicole Kirkaldy, Yolo County’s Neighborhood Court program coordinator, said the court has found success in its brief existence. Kirkaldy said Yolo participants were 37 percent less likely to commit a new offense than their counterparts who would have been eligible, but instead engaged in the traditional court system.

“Recidivism isn’t the main goal, per se, of restorative justice…but it is kind of a natural consequence,” said Kirkaldy. “Because a person is involved in their own resolution, they tend to have more buy-in, they tend to have better outcomes.”

In the Santa Cruz Neighborhood Court, three trained volunteers work with offenders who have opted into the program in a series of conferences to help them understand the harm caused and find solutions.

The conference assigns “directives” to the participant as a way to help the victims, the community, and the offender. These directives can be volunteering at local organizations or counseling, and can connect participants to resources like mental health care and job opportunities, relatively inaccessible through the traditional justice system. The directives vary, depending on the crime and its impact on the community. 

During the Neighborhood Court restorative justice conference the participant again needs to take full responsibility for the harm caused,” said program coordinator Elaine Johnson “and then the participant and community volunteer panelists discuss what was going on in the participants life when the harm happened. Then together they come up with agreement/s that they feel would help repair the harm.

The conferences, which started on Dec. 3, will hear cases concerning shoplifting, vandalism, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and nine other low-level misdemeanors. They hope to expand the type of cases they take in the future, as Yolo and San Francisco Counties have done with their Neighborhood Courts. 

The program accepted 26 volunteers to become panelists. They completed 17 days of training, which was conducted by the Community Resource Center in Santa Cruz. Due to COVID-19, the training was held almost entirely on Zoom, with some mock training held in person.

Since its debut, the court has seen two cases, but plans to resume hearing one case per week on Jan. 14.  

Santa Cruz hopes to follow the progress made in other counties. Johnson said that in the counties that have implemented the Neighborhood Court, they saw their combined reoffense rate drop around 4 percent after hearing about 4,000 cases.   

“I look forward to the growth and success of our Neighborhood Courts program in Santa Cruz County,” Johnson said.