Neighborhood Justice: How Memphis' Community Courts are reducing barriers to court appearances

It happens. The mower breaks and the lawn gets high before repairs can be made. A car breaks down without money to fix it and sits on the street too long.

According to the City of Memphis' new data hub, vehicle violations and lot maintenance are the most common minor housing code citations throughout the city. 

For many residents in Southeast Memphis, a trek Downtown to address a violation in court is inconvenient. For others, it's a major obstacle.

Seniors, people with disabilities and low-income residents can face big barriers to making their court date, including mobility limitations and inadequate transportation. Low-income workers are less likely to have paid time off and more likely to have inflexible hours and unpredictable schedules. Wages lost getting to and attending court can mean their family goes without groceries or utilities.

Missing court can have compounding effects by adding additional appearances and escalating litigation and monetary penalties. 

Luckily, there's Community Court.

Billed as 'justice at the neighborhood level,' Community Court allows residents to resolve minor code violations without leaving their neighborhoods. Beyond convenience, the court hopes to help residents address citations before they become chronic.

“Community Court allows us to hear the cases that affect the community right there in that same community," said court referee, Lisa Harris. "[It] makes it easier for the defendants, neighbors, and other interested citizens to attend, versus coming all the way Downtown."

Community Court meets monthly in Hickory Hill, Whitehaven, Crosstown, and Frayser.

Hickory Hill's court is held every second Thursday. It typically meets at the Hickory Hill Community Center, but the location can change based on availability at the center.

“Sometimes they move us around," said longtime Hickory Hill resident Rorey Lawrence. "We've even had court in the game room [of the center]. Children walked by the window and looked in.”

Community Court does not hear cases of chronic violators or major violations, like serious structural damage or apartment complexes with violations across multiple units. 

"It's usually more cars that aren't running, high grass and storage and junk outside on the property," said court referee, John Cameron. "It also allows members of the community who might be concerned about their own property to come in and watch.”

Community Court is an extension of the Shelby County Environmental Court under its Division 14 General Sessions Court, with Judge Patrick Dandridge as the presiding judge. Judicial referees serve as the arbitrators for the neighborhood-based courts. 

Community Court Clerk Darious Scott (L) hands a case file to Community Court Referee Lisa Harris, who will preside over the case. (Rob Brown)

The Violators

The city's data hub provides access to code enforcement's 311 reporting and tracking system.

It shows three apartment complexes in Hickory Hill with current, multiple and serious violations. Renters reported mold, sewage leaks, a lack of heat or water, and insect infestations.

Renters in single-family homes also report their property owners for similar violations. Large-scale rental investors top the list of chronic code enforcement violators. Most live out-of-state and have no direct ties to Memphis. The result is less accountability for the condition of their properties and renter safety.

It's harder for individual residents and community groups to address these bigger violators. Those are the types of cases heard Downtown in Environmental Court.

Community Court is designed for average Memphians, most of whom rent or own single-family dwellings. Inoperable and abandoned vehicles are by far the leading concern.

Among 311's current open or in-progress cases, there are 21 vehicle violations in Hickory Hill. Other minor infractions include four junky yard violations, two violations for overgrown lawns and several one-off citations for things like a broken fence and failure to secure a vacant house.

"Pickup truck and junk in yard," said one complaint.

"There is a damaged/broken down car with missing tire on street, has been there for at least one week," said a second.

Community Court hopes that by reducing barriers to court attendance and involving community members in the process, violations are resolved as quickly and painlessly as possible.

“[Division 14 is] running traffic in one place, we're running more detailed renovation type cases Downtown, we're doing the [smaller] stuff out in the community," said Cameron.
 

A Request of the Court 

Some argue the court system isn't the best solution to address minor blight, especially when it further penalizes those who already lack the ability or resources to maintain their properties. Age, physical mobility and income often play a part in creating code violations. 

At minimum, Community Court is a step in the right direction.

The courts help community groups track and combat blight through targeted assistance, cleanup efforts and monitoring of neighbors progressing towards chronic negligence.

Residents can sit in on the courts proceedings to better understand and participate in the process of blight mitigation in their communities. Neighbors are often the people who report minor violations. Community Courts give them the opportunity to follow the cases' progress.

"The whole reason we came [to Hickory Hill] was because people from community groups asked us to start a court out there," said Cameron. "People really do reach out and want to be good neighbors."

Lawrence said he watched the community decline after its annexation in 1999. Upper and middle class white residents left the neighborhood in droves while middle class and low-income people of color moved in in nearly equal numbers. Businesses and investment dollars followed the wealthier residents farther east and south into DeSoto County. 

Lawrence said alongside annexation, revitalization efforts Downtown brought the closure of several public housing projects. Many displaced residents relocated to Hickory Hill.  

"They shut down five public housing places within a year of each other, and of course those people had to have places to go," Lawrence claimed. 

The number of homeowners in Hickory Hill decreased, while the number of blighted properties increased.

According to Cameron, the foreclosure crisis beginning in the late-2000s also significantly increased the number of code violations in Hickory Hill and the surrounding areas. 

“People had less money to keep their yards up," he said. "With the economy doing well, there's a lot more value in the houses and [fewer] investors buying them up.”

Residents in Southeast Memphis voiced their concerns about the rise in violations, and in 2008, Community Court set up shop in Hickory Hill.

“There's some fantastic neighborhoods and very involved community groups," said Cameron of Hickory Hill and Southeast Memphis.

Read more articles by A.J Dugger III and Cole Bradley.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell) Cole Bradley is a native Memphian, graduate of the University of Memphis and High Ground's managing editor. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and joined the High Ground in Jan 2017. Cole's is passionate about solutions journalism and anthro-journalism, fusing anthropological methods for deep community engagement with people-centered, sidewalk-level journalism.
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