Douglas Van Dyk, Judge, Clackamas County Community Court


Douglas Van Dyk, Judge, Clackamas County Community Court

Douglas Van Dyk, Judge, Clackamas County Community Court

Judge Douglas Van Dyk is a Circuit Court Judge in Clackamas County, Oregon, and presides over the Overland Park Community Court, one of 10 sites to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice under its Community-Based Problem-Solving Criminal Justice Initiative. Here he speaks about the court and how it works.

Judge Douglas Van Dyk is a Circuit Court Judge in Clackamas County, Oregon, and presides over the Overland Park Community Court, one of 10 sites to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice under its Community-Based Problem-Solving Criminal Justice Initiative. He spoke to Center for Court Innovation staff about the court and how it works. 

How did the idea for a community court in Clackamas County originate?
Our program is focused on a high-crime low-income neighborhood in outer southeast Portland that bears a disproportionate share of low-level crime and drug- and alcohol-affected individuals and families. The neighborhood has suffered because of its undesirability to businesses and individuals who might otherwise be able to afford investments in the neighborhood.

Here’s an aside: I was a planning commissioner in Portland and Portland’s unusual for its aggressive planning. Long before I became a judge I was involved in efforts to try to turn neighborhoods around that were on that downward spiral, and something I observed is that one of the keys to turning around a neighborhood is to attract people who are willing to invest in it, who are willing to live there and fix up their houses and so on. So that’s in play here.

We had a neighborhood association that was well organized because of the efforts of just two or three people really, longtime residents who became active with working with the D.A.’s office and the court to look for solutions to neighborhood problems. The idea of a community court came about as a way to help bring neighbors together and inspire greater investment and commitment to the neighborhood. In some respects a community court has that symbolic value. It can be something for people to rally around, and provide that sort of hopefulness that’s necessary to make a community want to reinvest in itself.

So, we managed to obtain a facility to place a court right in the neighborhood. A building was made available to us through the county, which just happened to have a room that was empty. And we got the county to build a little portable judge’s bench that is easily movable, and to provide us with some recording devices. We started in January 2005. We really had no money at all in the beginning, we had no grants; we just cobbled together some existing resources to be able to get the court going. And then we got the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help us take the project to the next level.

What resources did you start with?
We were able to get a representative from the probation department to come to our once a week community court and coordinate the community service. And we got our state social welfare department, the Department of Human Services, to contribute a social worker that would be knowledgeable about all the resources available in the county and be able to network people into those resources, whether it be GED testing or employment services or housing or St. Vincent de Paul, so those were the personnel resources. We got our county court to come up with the recording equipment that we needed.

How does the court work?
We work with low-level offenders—primarily those who’ve committed theft, criminal mischief. Typically the crimes have some social underpinnings, a mix of poverty, unemployment, low education, mental health, and/or alcohol and drugs. We try to identify what the obstacles are to the defendants’ placing their lives on better paths, and if that is getting a GED, getting connected with a community college, getting connected with mental health services or housing services, or a bus pass, or identification so that they can get a job, we help them with that. We link them with job services, GED programs. I require people to go out and apply for jobs and bring back reports about the jobs they’ve applied for.

We also try to educate defendants about the impacts of crime on neighborhoods. Most individual defendants don’t grasp that a shoplift can affect a neighborhood and we send them to a class where they learn about how even very large institutional type retailers will close stores if they’re not able to control their loss prevention or their shoplifting losses, and how neighborhoods have been affected by that.

We give credit to what New York has done and the “broken window” theory, and in this neighborhood the philosophy is to prosecute every crime and require every individual in the neighborhood to take some accountability for the crime in terms of addressing their own obstacles or disabilities to prevent the crime from occurring, recognizing and understanding that the crime has an impact on the neighborhood, and then doing work in the neighborhood to pay the neighborhood back. All of our offenders perform community service in the neighborhood unless there’s some obstacle. Our probation department--what we call community corrections—takes the offenders out every Sunday to work on projects in the neighborhood, so we’ve had significant clean-up projects and so on. We also have a church that’s working with us, so if an offender’s not able to do community service in the neighborhood with community corrections because of a disability, which is often the case, then we have a church that has them stuff envelopes or do little projects they identify and sign off on.

And we’re trying to build relationships with the faith community and business community and the chambers of commerce and the like. We’ve organized a group of loss prevention officers from the local businesses. We have sort of a typical suburban four-lane strip highway called 82nd Avenue that is dominated by larger retailers like Wal-Mart and so on and the loss prevention officers of those stores have organized themselves to direct the citing officer when a shoplifting occurs, to have the individual cited into our community court, so we have cooperation from these businesses, and the businesses have also supported us by donating things, services, sometimes copy paper.

How involved are you in the court?
It’s half a day a week for me. It’s every Monday. I normally work the regular criminal and civil docket. We have 10 judges in this county and we all do a little bit of everything. This effort was not generated by me as much as it was by our former presiding judge, Robert Sealander. He was the real far-sighted one in all of this.
Has it been challenging for you to take on this new kind of work, to relate to offenders in a totally different way?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. My background is as a business litigation attorney, which I was for 17 years primarily in construction law. And I might be flattering myself but I felt that as a business lawyer I learned from business clients that you really have to focus on results, not just process. As a court, we also have to be rigorous in our protection of due process rights, but that shouldn’t stop us from paying attention to our outcomes as well. So I felt like when I came to the bench and was suddenly doing lots of criminal work that I maybe had a bit of a unique perspective about how to approach offenders.

Attacking root causes of crime is to me the appropriate response for the community and our society. If you don’t try to overcome some of these barriers, whether they be psychological or physical, then you’re not getting results. It really just becomes a slap on the wrist, and in many traditional courts, the likelihood is that with a low-level offense you’ll just end up with a fine and bench probation, which means you don’t even have to report to anybody. That’s nonsense. That doesn’t change anything. It just puts a person who’s already depressed because they’re debt-ridden into a deeper hole. We’re hardly able to collect those fines, and the individual who’s responsible for them just wants to find a deeper foxhole and hide out, not become responsible.

So we use the power of the court, the power I have, and the prospect of a jail sanction hanging over a person’s head at all times while they’re in this process, to get the person to do what they know they need to do, to get the person to do what they know will make them feel better about themselves and feel like they can accomplish something with their lives, that they can give something back to the community, and we try to make them feel that way when they’ve accomplished what the program requires. When they’ve done all their work in the neighborhood, the neighborhood gives them a certificate out of appreciation for their work. For many of these people, I would say most, they’ve never received any such award in their lives, perhaps not since they were in Little League, if they were in Little League, if they had that opportunity as a child, but they have to work for it. They have to work for it by getting on track with their education or a job in addition, so that impulse to want to steal hopefully can be addressed that way, be addressed because the person is confident that they don’t need to steal, that there are other ways.

Is the purpose of the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help you extend what you’re able to offer in terms of social services?
It’s really helped us in that regard. Until we got the grant it was like trying to get blood out of a rock, it seemed. We were just inching along, although I think that’s why we got the grant, because we were able to get this thing started and show that we could have some success. The grant has helped us further it. We’ve begun now to be able to process more offenders. We’ve gotten more buy-in from the business community. We’re getting better recognition from the defense bar and more buy-in from the district attorney’s office, and I would probably say better acceptance from all of the judges on our bench.

We have to prove that we’re efficient. We have to prove that we get results. But as long as we’re able to make that case for ourselves, then I think that the institutions will support us.

Have you begun to have an impact on the neighborhood?
The neighborhood sure tells us we have. We photograph our community service projects, our success and so on. That intangible hopefulness in a neighborhood, though, is what’s most difficult to measure, but it’s not an abstraction. People communicate it to you and so we’re convinced that we’re making progress. But soon we’ll have to report because under our evaluation plan for the project, we’re going to be tracking things like numbers of people getting screened, numbers receiving case management and services, and the percentage of people who complete the program and/or get rearrested.

April 2006

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