Rosalind Jeffers, Chief, Community Prosecution Section, Dallas City Attorney’s Office

Interviews

Rosalind Jeffers, Chief, Community Prosecution Section, Dallas City Attorney’s Office

Rosalind Jeffers, Chief, Community Prosecution Section, Dallas City Attorney’s Office

 

Rosalind Jeffers joined the Dallas City Attorney’s Office in 2005, serving as the community prosecutor assigned to the South Dallas/Fair Park neighborhood and as assistant director of the South Dallas Community Court. After two years in the Community Prosecution Section, Ms. Jeffers moved to the Employment Section. In 2008, she returned to the Community Prosecution Section as its chief. She spoke with Robert V. Wolf of the Center for Court Innovation about the office’s approach to community prosecution and some of its key programs, including its reentry initiative and the city’s two—soon to be three—community courts.

How did you become a community prosecutor?
Before law school, I was employed as a probation officer in Superior Court in Washington D.C., primarily working with juvenile delinquents. Later, when I began law school, I worked in the Family Courts, concentrating on juvenile delinquency and domestic violence issues. Both settings—Probation and Family Court—allowed me to be innovative and proactive in seeking treatment and social services for my clients. I always felt, however, “If we had just gotten to this kid or this kid’s family earlier, we might have been able to prevent this problem in the first place.”  My first priority for each of my clients was to keep them out of jail, and eventually prison. My second focus was to find services beneficial to each youth.

As an attorney in Dallas, I worked with probation in the federal court, and as an assistant district attorney in the county, finding creative solutions to “already sentenced” individuals. Along with providing sentencing guidelines for federal judges, I was also able to create and become involved with various programs for women. These programs focused on first-time offenders, group counseling, and an innovative idea we coined the “women’s issues group.”  However, as an assistant district attorney, because of the high caseload, I couldn’t be as creative in plea bargain or trial sentencing. Even though I enjoyed trial work, in my heart I still asked: What could have been done to fix this? A lot of cases I saw in the District Attorney’s Office made me think, “Wow you’re a three timer. If someone had gotten to you earlier, you could have avoided this. If you had stayed in school or taken a trade, you could have taken the business sense you’ve wasted on drug dealing to become an accountant.”

When I read the announcement about the community prosecution job, I thought, “This is a dream job. I get to use my abilities as a prosecutor and a counselor, and they’re actually going to pay me for it.” I got the position and immediately started working in a high-crime, mostly African-American area, South Dallas/Fair Park. I also became an assistant director of the community court, which wasn’t like any kind of court I’d ever been to. They called it a rehabilitation court. I was used to prosecuting people first and then offering help, not giving them help while we handled the case. I grew to love it.

The city attorney’s jurisdiction is different than a county district attorney’s. What kinds of cases do you handle?
The Dallas City Attorney’s Office primarily handles civil litigation matters and some Class C misdemeanors, which are the lowest misdemeanor crimes.

How would you describe the approach taken by your boss, City Attorney Thomas P. Perkins Jr., to community prosecution?

Tom Perkins supports all aspects of his office, including community prosecution. He speaks highly of our program and participates in many of the events we sponsor, takes an active role in our litigation matters, and receives high praise from City Council members and citizens alike on the great job our attorneys and code inspectors are doing in their communities. Tom knows that community prosecution is able to deal with many issues expeditiously and effectively. When community prosecution handles a concern from the community—whether it’s from an individual citizen, a neighborhood group, or a member of the City Council—we help prevent a problem from becoming a bigger problem.

How is your office organized?
The City of Dallas’ Community Prosecution Section has one chief, one deputy chief, one reentry attorney, and 15 community prosecution teams—consisting of an attorney and code inspector—in 14 target areas of the city. Our section is also responsible for Dallas’ two community courts, with plans to open a third community court in spring 2010 in the South Oak Cliff part of town.

Tell me about your reentry initiative.
We have a reentry docket that takes place one day a week in our South Dallas Community Court working with juveniles and young adults—17 to 24 year olds—who are former gang members who’ve been released from Texas Youth Commission prison. The prosecutor works with the parole officer as well as the hearing officer, who come to court once a week to hold hearings. The parolees appear in court on a regular basis to report their progress during the course of the program, which lasts from six months to a year. The hearing officer reviews the guidelines, their responsibilities, and the prosecutor helps link the parolees to additional social services, like job training. Because the court is located in a community center, we also have access to emergency social services, enabling us to provide clients with food and financial assistance to help pay utilities, rent, etc. The reentry attorney also teaches courses at the jails, prisons, and parole offices on resume writing, interviewing skills, and how to look for a job. Through the six cities anti-gang grant, we have money that allows us to pay for supplemental things like an automotive-training program, truck driving school, or uniforms.

Through Project Safe Neighborhood, we also work with recently released parolees and probationers who have either felony or domestic violence misdemeanor cases to educate them about federal laws pertaining to gun crime and gun paraphernalia. We partner with the U.S. Attorney Office’s to bring in speakers representative of all state, local, and federal law enforcement for a presentation each month. There are usually about 500 to 600 parolees and probationers in attendance.

You recently had a national conference to educate other jurisdictions about your prostitution initiative. How does that program work?
We have five truck stops within about a two-mile radius where a high volume of prostitution occurs. Once a month, in partnership with the Dallas Police Department, our community court sets up a makeshift courtroom in conjunctions with a triage of medical and social services from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. Police officers bring in prostitutes who are charged with Class C misdemeanors, like solicitation or manifestation of prostitution. Once there, the prostitutes have an opportunity to receive medical and social service assistance from approximately 40 non-profit organizations, including the county, doctors, nurses, drug treatment services, and mental health coordinators. These defendants are given an opportunity to change their lives right on the spot. They are told, “We can provide you with whatever assistance you need right now.” After going through triage, if they agree to go into counseling or whatever social service providers recommend, they are placed on the community court docket. Although there have been some failures, on average, about 50 percent of the prostitutes accept help. Some have graduated, gotten jobs, and are now tax-paying citizens.
 
Recently, a felony court and a misdemeanor court have joined the initiative. The felony and misdemeanor judges are either on-site or available by phone.

Your office runs Dallas’ two community courts, which are located in pre-existing community centers. How does that work?
The courts started back when one of our City Council members heard about community court. A delegation went to New York to see the Midtown Community Court and the Red Hook Community Justice Center, and a councilman was so excited, he helped find grant money to begin the South Dallas Community Court. The community courts are operated out of the City Attorney’s Office; however, we partner with the municipal court system to provide a municipal judge one day a week at each location. We are currently working with the Dallas District Attorney’s Office to have our community court prosecutors cross-designated to have jurisdiction over Class A and B misdemeanors, which would allow us to handle a wider array of cases.

Right now the courts handle tickets pertaining to civil code violations and quality-of-life Class C misdemeanor crimes. Defendants are seen before the judge within seven days of receiving their citation. In court, defendants who plead guilty or no contest are placed on deferred adjudication by the judge, and then seen by the social service coordinator, community service coordinator, and community prosecutor. In lieu of paying the court costs and fines, defendants are given an opportunity to perform community service. Additionally, the social service coordinator provides the necessary referrals for treatment needs. Defendants are then given a return date for performing community service and reporting on their progress prior to being released. Most defendants complete their probation within six months and graduate the program.

How do you measure the community courts’ success?
As far as recidivism is concerned, we’re not seeing the same people come back to court. Currently, in our South Dallas Community Court, 90 percent of the defendants are successfully complying with the conditions of their probation and community service mandates. Our West Dallas court has a 78 to 80 percent compliance rate.

Will your new South Oak Cliff Community Court be in a pre-existing community center like the other two courts you already have?
No, but that’s only because we don’t have more community centers. We’re negotiating our lease now and making sure we get enough space to have social service providers located with us onsite. The Dallas Urban League is across the street, and it offers vocational training and reentry services. The Urban League will be a direct referral for us and easy for defendants to get to.

If you had to pick one program that you’re particularly proud of, what would it be?
There are so many things I am proud of that just picking one isn’t possible. I can say that I take a lot of pride whenever community prosecutors are able to take care of an egregious code violation through voluntary compliance. Take a vacant, dangerous structure, for instance. Whether it ends up demolished or rehabbed, it makes me proud if we can save the money by using education or advocacy—rather than a lawsuit—to bring the landowner into compliance.  It is also heartwarming to see a defendant successfully complete probation in community court and witness a life changing metamorphosis. We hear a lot testimonials from our defendants who come back to tell us how the community court changed their lives.

December 2009

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