A good night story

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May 12, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Sam Grabarski
Sam Grabarski

By reducing the burden of proof, reducing penalties and quickening justice,

a night court could rid Downtown of nuisance crimes

Two guys well into their brews, one in Minneapolis and one in Philadelphia. Each slips out the door in their respective cities. Each decides to urinate in a public place and is seen by a local police officer.

The City of Lakes man gets a paper ticket and is left to call for a court date, but he never appears. The Liberty Bell man is arrested and whisked off to a night court, where he\'s fined and placed on a three-day work detail to clean the spot he violated and then any other places needing sanitary attention. Guess which man is likely to offend again?

The business community is so enthusiastic about the Philadelphia night-court model that we\'re sending a team of Minneapolis officials to see it in action in June at our expense. The idea for this trip originated with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, chaired this year by City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward). Hennepin County Chief Judge Kevin Burke, another champion of this idea, is recruiting judges to volunteer their services on a pilot night court that might start sometime this summer.

Neighborhood leaders despair over how justice is applied to chronic nuisance crime offenders. Residents see people arrested and placed in police cars, but they fear this is the end of the justice process rather than the start. Minneapolis offenders truly are given paper tickets and expected to call for a court date. After destroying their tickets, their cases are often dropped or dismissed. With no immediate connection between crime and punishment, there isn\'t much deterrence to repeated patterns of bad behavior.

Minneapolis files over 11,000 nuisance crimes annually, but 39 percent of those cases are dismissed. Only 37 percent of the cases brought to court are disposed as guilty. Now, we\'re learning that over 30 percent of nuisance crime case files are misplaced - as in gone - in the City Attorney\'s office, with the completeness of the remaining files in doubt.

The installation of a computerized case log system is the solution for part of the problem. But the use of a \"quick action\" night court would solve other problems.

The breakthrough concept in Philadelphia is to lower the sanctioning levels for small crimes that break the spirit of a central business district or the neighborhoods, in exchange for swift and more lasting justice. Panhandling, public urination, loitering and public intoxication, among others, would make the list of smaller crimes. When reduced to \"fineable offenses\" rather than full misdemeanors, the offenders cannot delay justice by asking for public defenders or jury trials. Judges can impose cash fines or work details on the spot based on the evidence on hand. In Philadelphia, the crimes are linked to punishment on the day of the offense, and this makes an impression on petty offenders.

Establishing evidence is the greatest initial tool in fighting crimes. So next to night courts, the next pilot to quicken my heart is the \"SafeZone\" project. This collaboration between the Police Department and Target Corp. will result in the installation (at Target\'s expense) of 20-30 cameras in busy Downtown locations. Staffed 24/7 by observers in secure areas, this viewing zone will encompass Washington to 12th Street, including 1st Avenue, Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall. The police receive about 4,000 crime-related calls in this district annually. The cameras will scan (with zoom lenses) for evidence of crimes in progress or after the fact, supplying high-resolution color images. In other cities where deployed, these camera networks have reduced burglaries, shoplifting, and auto theft by 20 percent or more.

Sam Grabarski is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group of business leaders.