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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Alternative courts gain ground for petty criminals

Cities and counties increasingly are creating innovative community courts to deal with the growing number of habitual petty criminals that police call "frequent fliers."Criminals who are arrested repeatedly for crimes such as public drunkenness, trespassing and panhandling are crowding jails and sapping police resources, officials say. The cost of handling small-time criminals who cycle in and out of jail is becoming a more pressing problem for communities as budgets tighten and jail populations swell.

The new courts sentence "frequent fliers" to treatment plans and social services, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment, instead of jail.

"It's the new frontier," says Amy Solomon, who studies criminal justice at The Urban Institute in Washington. "There is a new realization and recognition" that incarceration is not the best solution. "I think it'll grow and continue to pick up."

Lincoln (Neb.) Police Chief Tom Casady says that his list of people arrested more than 200 times each has grown from 17 in 2002 to 83. "The overall impact of the 'frequent flier' on the criminal justice system is great," Casady says. "If you can stop that trend in one way or another, there's a huge amount of money that can be conserved" — perhaps thousands of dollars in Lincoln alone. [Mark Godsey]

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