Keeping an eye on the courts

Police work with three Southwest neighborhoods to track criminals, seek tougher prosecutions and hold the courts accountable

When police arrested two individuals after discovering methamphetamine, a large amount of cocaine and multiple firearms last year at a Lyndale neighborhood house, nearby resident Scott Moore felt compelled to get involved.

He regularly walked past the house with his then 2-year-old son. Some of his son’s friends lived across the street.

"Nothing happened to me personally," Moore said. "And I wasn’t there on the day of the arrest, but it impacts my environment."

So Moore wrote a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery, who presided over the case, about how the incident affected him. Then he found a babysitter for his son and showed up at the trial.

"Oftentimes, there’s nobody there to represent the victims," Moore said. "I was there to provide a voice for the community."

Southwest Police hope more community members start doing the same. Crime Prevention Specialist (CPS) Tom Thompson, Lt. Marie Przynski and Assistant City Attorney and 5th Precinct Community Attorney Lisa Godon are working with the CARAG, Lyndale and Kingfield neighborhood organizations to develop a program to track offenders, seek tougher prosecutions and hold the criminal justice system accountable.

Residents participating in the "court watch" program would work with police to monitor arrest reports, write impact statements and occasionally show up in court to ensure offenders get appropriate sentences.

Such programs have existed for years in other parts of the city. Thompson said he’s been pushing for a court watch in the 5th Precinct’s 2nd sector (East Calhoun, CARAG, Lyndale, East Harriet, Kingfield, West Calhoun and Linden Hills) for a couple years simply because it’s a good practice.

"It’s to get community members active and participatory in the justice system," he said.

Thompson said he would like the court watch idea to catch on in other area neighborhoods, but CARAG, Lyndale and Kingfield have shown the most interest so far.

Community in the courtroom

A regular court watch committee made up of Thompson, Przynski, Godon and representatives from each of the three involved neighborhoods plans to meet monthly starting May 7.

The three neighborhoods plan to recruit volunteers to work one week a month each, checking arrest reports, finding individuals close to crimes to write impact statements, drafting statements themselves and showing up in court if time allows. The volunteers would report to the larger court watch group and their respective neighborhood crime and safety committees.

The program is in a trial stage, but a couple of the neighborhoods have found volunteers.

Lyndale resident Ray Neset is one of two volunteers for his neighborhood. He said he wants to make sure the criminal justice system is doing all it can to reduce crime where he lives.

"I feel that it is my job as a citizen to hold them accountable," Neset said.

He said gang graffiti is one of the problems he’s seen in Lyndale, and he would like to be a part of cleaning up that issue if possible. He’s concerned about multiple gangs converging in the area.

"It’s not just an aesthetic issue," Neset said. "It’s a symptom of what’s going on in my neighborhood."

Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said the group’s board would decide whether to approve court watch as an official neighborhood program after assessing its effectiveness during the next couple months.

CARAG and Kingfield are also testing the program but won’t require a board vote for it to

continue.

Joanna Hallstrom, project organizer for the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, said her neighborhood has one volunteer for court watch. Scott Engel, community coordinator for CARAG, said volunteers hadn’t been selected in his neighborhood yet, but he had some in mind.

At an April meeting about the development of court watch, residents and police shared ideas about what the program might look like when it gets up and running. Though tracking offenders, writing impact statements and reporting trial outcomes to the larger community were planned to be the main focus, the group also discussed going to court; even carrying matching clipboards to identify themselves.

WATCH, a Minneapolis-based court-monitoring program that focuses on domestic abuse cases involving women and children, made itself identifiable to judges by toting red clipboards.

Przynski’s dream for the CARAG, Lyndale and Kingfield court watch takes identification a step further.

"My fantasy is to empower the residents to wear hot pink T-shirts with the message ‘Where’s my justice?’ on the front and then to attend court so the judge can see their level of commitment and involvement," Przynski said.

Whether community members use impact statements, clipboards or brightly colored T-shirts, the success of court watch depends on how influential residents can be in the courtroom.

Stronger sentencing

"The whole idea of a court watch group is for citizens to be watching what goes on in the court rooms, and holding judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys accountable for what’s going on," Godon said.

Impact statements and community presence in a courtroom can make a big difference, she said.

Without a victim’s testimony, cases can get dropped or sentences might be light because a judge doesn’t know the full impact of the crime committed, she said. Though any community statement is helpful when prosecuting, testimony from someone directly affected is best, she said. Showing up in court is even better.

"If you don’t see someone in the courtroom, it’s very easy to forget that there’s somebody that’s interested in what’s going on there," Godon said.

Hennepin County Attorney Gail Baez said court watch programs play a significant roll in prosecuting chronic offenders of nuisance crimes such as loitering and trespassing. Without a judge recognizing the impact of a repeat low-level offender, the rotating doors of the justice system tend to turn a bit faster, she said.

"A lot of times in the criminal justice system they don’t realize how destructive those so-called low-level crimes are to a community," Baez said.

Judge Montgomery said court attendance and community impact statements can contribute to a sentence, though the influence depends largely on the case and the way a community member is affected. As a former Hennepin County judge, she remembers seeing the red clipboards of WATCH members.

Montgomery said showing up in court is also great education for residents.

"Jury studies have shown that people get a much different perspective of what happens in the courtroom by actually being there, rather than watching what happens on ‘Judge Judy,’" she said.

Baez said court testimony from community members has led to barring some offenders from setting foot within specific geographic boundaries.

Such restrictions have been ordered for offenders in Whittier and Stevens Square because of the area’s Law Enforcement Group made up of community leaders, police and Godon. The group focuses on a specific group of the most chronic offenders and does not operate in the same way the tri-neighborhood court watch is planned to, but it works toward the same results.

A more comparable court watch example is the Franklin Safety Center court watch in the Phillips neighborhood, which focuses on crimes on the north end of the 3rd Precinct. CPS Carla Nielson, the watch’s coordinator, said the community-driven program has resulted in stronger sentences including geographic restrictions and longer prison time for area offenders.

Police are hoping for the same success from the new Southwest watch.

Getting started

Przynski said the new court watch group has identified a couple individuals to track, and community members are eager to get started.

"The next step is keeping the process on track and seeing what evolves from these first initial steps," she said.

She said police would rely heavily on neighborhood groups to recruit volunteers for the program.

Finding time to dedicate to court watch is a challenge for some residents, including Moore. He’s not part of the group yet, but said when his son is in school and he has more time during the day, he might volunteer.

He doesn’t know for sure if his impact statement contributed to the five-year sentences each individual involved in the neighborhood drug bust received, but he’s pretty confident it did. His statement was among several for the incident.

Judge Montgomery said she remembered the case but couldn’t comment on it specifically, nor could she talk about particular impact statements.

"I always read them," she said.

For more information about the CARAG, Lyndale and Kingfield court watch program or to get involved, contact CPS Tom Thompson at 673-2823.