A Community Approach to Fighting Crime
December 31, 2002
by Kay Crawford
“Would you want to have this happening in front of your house, in front of your kids?” asked a community member to one of the offenders who was offering an explanation for why he was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in her south-side neighborhood. On that morning, community volunteers had gathered at the Community Court in Indianapolis to sit on the Community Impact Panel and meet with five offenders who had been arrested in their neighborhood on charges of prostitution. The offenders agreed to participate in this meeting as part of their plea agreement with the court, and the community members were there to do their part in the fight against crime that afflicts their neighborhood.
By speaking out as part of an impact panel, these area residents let the law-breakers know how their behavior is affecting them personally and the community as a whole. After the charges are read for each of the offenders, the meeting is opened to questions from the panel, while a facilitator monitors the proceedings.
One offender is asked how his wife reacted to the news of his arrest. He admits that she was angry with him, but says that they will work things out. He is ashamed of his behavior, worried that other family members and co-workers will find out. Originally concerned only with how this incident had affected him, this offender now considers the effect it has on the neighborhood and its residents.
Another panel member asks all the offenders what they were thinking about when the arrest took place, or even if they had purposefully come into the neighborhood to find a prostitute. Starting off by saying that the undercover police officer was just so good looking that they couldn’t resist her, almost all of the offenders eventually come around to agreeing that they made unwise choices and that they had not been coerced into anything. A police officer attending as a member of the impact panel explained that law enforcement operates prostitution sting operations in neighborhoods like this one to eliminate the illegal activity.
The Community Impact Panels at the Community Court in Indianapolis have been in operation for less than a year and are being used to handle “quality of life” crimes. Panels have handled cases of public intoxication, disorderly conduct, prostitution, and like cases that occur in the south-side neighborhoods within the court’s jurisdiction. The Indianapolis Impact Panels utilize the principles of family group conferences and of similar panels in Vermont known as Reparation Boards.
During the course of the exchange between offenders and residents, responsibility is recognized, apologies are offered, and some promises are made that the behavior will not be repeated. Having participated in the impact panel meeting, the offenders have completed the requirement for their agreement and have a better understanding of how their behavior has affected others besides just themselves or their immediate family. For the community members, the panel has given them the opportunity to vent their frustrations over having this type of activity taking place on their streets, or crimes that have personally affected them. For the court system, the Community Impact Panels are one way to handle multiple cases in an efficient manner—and one that is intended to have lasting impact, by involving citizens in the process and forcing criminals to face the real victims of so-called victimless crimes.
Kay Crawfordwas a research fellow at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute until 2004
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