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West Bank to fight underage drinking with new community courts

Underage drinking and partying in campus neighborhoods could soon carry different penalties for University students.

West Bank neighborhoods will adopt community courts in 2003 similar to those currently used in St. Paul, with the possibility of other University areas being added in the future.

Community court is a broad definition given to informal justice applied to minor crimes that affect an area’s livability.

The punishments can involve community service to the area where the crime was committed or input from the community on sentencing. In many cases, the crime is dismissed pending completion of probation, leaving a clean record.

But some think the punishments can be harsh and discourage the defendant from taking the case to trial.

Judge Richard Hopper, who presides over the 3rd Precinct community courts, said the Central City Neighborhood Project’s restorative justice program would be instituted in the West Bank area Jan. 1.

Minneapolis already has a number of community court programs on city and county levels, but the county program is used mainly for felonies. The city program focuses on the 3rd Precinct in south Minneapolis, handling mostly prostitution cases.

Hopper gave a hypothetical situation involving public urination, but he said the court would likely handle underage drinking.

He said a person caught urinating on an apartment building would be given a ticket by police. During the defendant’s first court appearance he or she can make a choice between community court and a regular trial.

If the individual agrees to settle the case in community court, he or she meets with community members the crimes have affected and work out a way to make reparations. If the reparations are completed and no crimes are committed in a year, the charges are dismissed and the defendant’s record is clean.

University Student Legal Services attorney Mark Herron said he has concerns that St. Paul courts might unfairly punish defendants who opt out of the community court.

“I think the punishments that have been meted out by the criminal court may be more severe and harsh,” Herron said.

Community court, first used in 1993 to clean up Times Square and Midtown Manhattan in New York City, has been in place in St. Paul since 1999 in part to control the neighborhood impact of partying near colleges.

Before the community court system was enacted, minors charged with underage drinking in St. Paul could typically plead guilty and pay a fine, usually less than $100, at the same office that handled traffic tickets. Paying the fine would count as a conviction and the petty misdemeanor would go on their record.

After the community courts system debuted, minor consumption charges – along with trespassing, prostitution and other crimes – would automatically be sent to a community court hearing.

At a community court hearing Oct. 24 in the Ramsey County Courthouse, assistant St. Paul city attorney Therese Skarda explained the system to approximately 40 assembled defendants while adding defendants would receive harsher sentences if they plead not guilty and opted out of community court.

A public defender and a representative from the probation office were also present.

Based on the events of that hearing, a typical first-time offender for underage drinking in St. Paul could expect to receive approximately 24 hours of community service in the area where they first committed their crime, an approximately $85 fine, a self-administered alcohol dependency test and an assignment to attend a mandatory alcohol abuse class.

The offender could have the charges dismissed and keep a clean record if they fulfilled their obligations through the probation office and remained law-abiding for one year.

The majority of the defendants charged with minor consumption on that day said if they had a choice between going to a St. Paul community court or a Minneapolis city court and paying an $85 fee, they would prefer being charged in Minneapolis – even if it meant they’d have a petty misdemeanor on their record.

The St. Paul city attorney’s office did not return phone calls or written questions.

The possibility of community courts in other University neighborhoods is currently undecided.

“It’s all growing out of people needing to be held accountable for their own behaviors and the question of what is a fair and reasonable model to follow,” said Wendy Menken, a Party Task Force

chairwoman. The Party Task Force is a coalition of neighborhood groups, police and University representatives.

Menken said a system based closely on St. Paul’s community courts and its Zero Adult Provider program is under consideration.

The program provides overtime wages to police officers who focus on underage drinkers and the adults who supply them.

So far, Menken said, the University has mostly offered educational solutions to unruly partiers, such as health awareness and a recently published guide to off-campus living. But the University has become more involved since the riot in Dinkytown last April, she said.

Seth Woehrle welcomes comments at [email protected]
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