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Planning a Court

Building Support

Center for Court Innovation

the Midtown Community Court model in Hartford. Beginning in late 1996, with the support of Connecticut’s Chief Court Administrator, a working group — including representatives from the City, the community, the Hartford Police Department, the State’s Office of Alternative Sanctions (OAS), the Public Defender’s Office, Adult Services, the Bail Commission/Pre-trial Services Office,5 and the State Sheriff’s Office — was convened to develop an implementation plan for Hartford’s Community Court.

Two individuals initially drove this project: Rae Ann Palmer, the Director of the Comprehensive Communities Partnership, who worked out of the City Manager’s Office; and Alta Lash, a community organizer with over two decades of grass-roots experience with Hartford’s neighborhoods. Whereas the traditional court system was heavily criticized for being too removed from the communities it purportedly served, having these two actors at the table ensured that the Court was designed to address the concerns of and be responsive to the City and its neighborhoods. Six months after planning began, Raymond Norko, the Court’s inaugural Judge, entered the planning process and played an integral role in conceptualizing the Court’s process- ing and sanctioning procedures. Thus, in contrast to some jurisdictions, where the planning was either prosecutor-driven or led by a neutral non-profit organization, planning for the Hartford Community Court gradually became more judge-driven.

In addition to the core project planners, the concept of a community court in Hartford had several important early allies. Hartford’s Court of Common Council and Mayor Michael Peters were staunch advocates, as was Aaron Ment, the Chief Court Administrator of the Connecticut Judicial Branch, and Susan Shimelman, a representative from the State’s Office of Alternative Sanctions. Several of those involved in the Community Court’s planning process reported that it was facilitated when other key figures, some of whom were skeptical at first, also came on board, becoming advocates of the Court.

The State’s Attorney: For example, Jim Thomas, the State’s Attorney, was initially skeptical about the concept of a community court when he was approached with the idea. Yet, after reading a Bureau of Justice Assistance publication on the Midtown Court and then visiting Midtown, he came to recognize that community courts could provide an effective means of dealing with low-level offenses.

The State’s Attorney had long been frustrated with the Hartford criminal justice system’s inability to address quality-of-life offenses — public drinking, larceny, pros- titution, graffiti. When police made arrests for such offenses, the overburdened criminal court could not devote a lot of attention to them. Data showed that more than 65 percent of misdemeanor arrests were “nolled” — declined to prosecute. This

5 Pretrial staff interview defendants and complete a criminal history check, including searching for out- standing warrants, pending cases, probation records, and for holds for other states and institutions.


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