By Alex Distefano
Well, for those of you out there who (for whatever reason) have failed to pay their fines and appear in court, after a certain period of time, expect a warrant to be issued and a none-too cordial visit from law enforcement. Then it’s off to jail, a hefty fine—or both.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In San Bernardino and Rancho Cucamonga, there is a program designed to help out individuals who fall into this category. Pastor Owusu Hodari, chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee for Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches (IECAAC), encourages citizens to take advantage of it. On Aug. 27, this Community Plea Program will debut at the Rancho Cucamonga Superior Courthouse. Such a program was put in place six years ago at the courthouse in San Bernardino.
“The way that this program works is simple,” Hodari says. “We work with nonviolent offenders whose only violations are failing to appear in court or pay off a simple traffic ticket. The clients must meet with us beforehand; we set up a meeting with the District Attorney and Public Defenders, and before we go to court, we work out an arrangement to substitute community service, in place of a fine or jail time.”
The program began in San Bernardino in 2004 and was itself based on one in Long Beach, but adapted to the Inland Empire, according to Hodari.
“This was developed in 2004 by [a] collaboration between the Public Defenders, the District Attorneys and IECAAC,” Hodari says. “We worked together on it, and had the goal to bridge the gap that existed between law enforcement and minority communities.”
So far, according to Hodari, the program has helped around 600 people, many of whom earned back their driving privileges, avoided jail time and high fines. As an added benefit to the community, the program has also generated thousands of hours worth of community service that have served local churches or charity organizations—which have to be approved by a judge.
Hodari says that he cannot stress enough that anyone charged with a felony, violent crime, drug offense or anything the District Attorney deems a repeat, serious or non-cooperative offender is ineligible for this plea deal.
“We are not exonerating anyone. These are people that for either ignorance or fear or lack of education have failed to pay for a ticket and appear in court,” Hodari says. “These are not violent criminals. With the collaboration between the District Attorney and Public Defenders, we work to weed out anyone that is not eligible, to ensure that only those with minor violations participate. To any critics of this program out there, no one gets off, or gets a free ride.”
Hodari says that clients must be screened before their court date, and an agreement of community service must be firmed up—which a judge must approve.
“Now, I will say that a judge can alter the number of hours a person can serve; it is always up to his or her discretion,” the pastor explains. “But, in every case, community service beats paying a fine or doing time in jail, and that is the ultimate goal—which does our community well.”
Hodari says he’s making a difference in community relations, and changing the attitudes of law enforcement.
“We understand that sometimes it happens where people forget or ignore these fines. We are here to keep them out of jail and assist them in doing the right thing.”
Hodari welcomes anyone in the area in this predicament to reach out, to avoid the hassle of dealing with the system on your own.
“Our goal for this program is to give aid to those out there, and help them become better citizens and not run from the police,” he says. “People should not fear the police if they have a warrant for failing to appear; also there is no expense on their behalf to be part of this program, which is an added benefit. The churches, the District Attorneys and the Public Defenders all do this on a volunteer basis. This is just one of the reasons why we think this program is excellent.”
For more information, call (909) 474-7036.