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Court watch needs helpers

The groups monitor selected cases. They hope their presence forces judges to be tough and keep repeat offenders off the street.

By JON WILSON

Revised July 3, 2000

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Neighborhood activists worried about crime are trying to organize yet another way to get drug dealers, prostitutes and other miscreants off the streets.

A "court watch," they believe, will make prosecutors and judges tougher, especially when it comes to repeat offenders.

"We would sit in the front row," said Ingrid Comberg, one of the court watch enthusiasts. "The idea is you don't have to say anything. The judges are taking notice, because they are up for re-election."

Comberg, the president of Uptown Neighborhoods, is trying to recruit volunteers to spend four or five hours each month monitoring selected cases.

She envisions a citywide program, and is trying to set it up through an informal group of neighborhood crime fighters called the Backyard Coalition.

Meanwhile, the city's neighborhood department has applied for a grant that would provide an AmeriCorps worker to help organize the court watch.

"I think this is a good way to get people involved. It's taking (crime prevention) to the next step, by seeing what happens in court," said Susan Ajoc, neighborhood partnership director.

Groups interested in a variety of issues -- domestic abuse, for example -- have set up court watches around the nation, monitoring each step of the judicial process once a person is charged.

The St. Petersburg activists are using a Sarasota court watch as a model.

Organized in early 1997, the Sarasota effort has proven effective, said coordinator Tina Riggle. She points to repeat offenders she said finally received lengthy prison sentences as a result of their cases being monitored by the court watch.

"We recognized the fact that the same people were getting arrested and were right back out on street corners," Riggle said.

"We started going into court and observing what happened, what the judges were actually doing. We started building portfolios on people, pulling arrest reports and targeting career criminals."

The activity isn't always popular with defense lawyers, Riggle said.

She said both public defenders and privately hired lawyers have made not-so-friendly comments to her.

Law enforcement officials, on the other hand, tend to support court watches.

"There's a big difference when there are people from the community who are there looking at the judge, saying this person (on trial) is a menace to our neighborhood," said Rick Stelljes, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.

"It puts a little more pressure on the system to be sensitive to victim and neighborhood needs when those folks are there."

Sarasota watchers wear bright yellow shirts embroidered with the words "court watch" to maintain a high profile. They take notes, and judges are aware of their presence, Riggle said.

"They're paying more attention to the person's criminal history," she said.

Those interested in a St. Petersburg court watch should call Comberg, 821-2192.

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