Naked City

Forgiving Their Trespasses

Mayor Kirk Watson and Community Court Judge Elisabeth Earle
Mayor Kirk Watson and Community Court Judge Elisabeth Earle (Photo By John Anderson)

A new era in downtown law enforcement was inaugurated Friday, with the opening of the downtown Austin Community Court. The idea behind the court is to match repeat transgressors of the city's public nuisance laws (public intoxication, panhandling, public camping and the like) with the social services they need to get on the right side of the law.

Which, in a lot of cases, is going to mean substance abuse treatment. According to city statistics, 57% of people who commit public order offenses suffer from chemical dependency, but only about half of those have ever been treated for substance abuse. To address the situation of each individual who enters the courtroom, Community Court Judge Elisabeth Earle (daughter of Travis County D.A. Ronnie Earle) will have at her fingertips a computer system which will contain not only the person's criminal record, but the record of any alternative sentencing or treatment plans prescribed in the past -- as well as how successful they were.

The system is designed to stop the seemingly endless -- and virtually meaningless -- movement of these individuals through the city's court system. City statistics show that the city spends $1.4 million annually arresting, housing, and charging repeat offenders in Central Austin; 54% of people arrested for public order offenses have been arrested before.

In addition to the carrot of rehabilitation, the community court judge will have an enhanced stick of incarceration, thanks to a controversial law which was championed by the Downtown Austin Alliance in the recent legislative session, which increased the fine for offenders convicted of more than three nuisance crimes in 24 months and added the possibility of jail time -- up to 180 days -- for the most intransigent offenders, those for whom community supervision and rehabilitation is unsuccessful.

The court is the first of its kind in Texas, and the fourth in the country, Mayor Kirk Watson told the crowd that attended the court's opening ceremonies in Earle's smallish courtroom on the ground floor of the Austin Municipal Court. The ceremonies were a credit-sharing fest among the many community stakeholders who participated in the project, notably the city, Travis County, the Austin Police Department, and the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association president Chris Riley said the court is based on one in midtown Manhattan, which was the first of its kind and has become a nationwide model. In his speech, Watson also cited New York City as an example for Austin to follow: "New York City has had success by concentrating their efforts on public nuisance crimes. ... They simply aren't tolerated. The Austin Community Court can have the same positive effect."

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