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Monroe Community Court’s latest graduate celebrated for personal turnaround

MONROE — The Monroe Municipal Court congratulated the latest graduate of the community court — a program which gives minor offenders a second chance and resources for success.
On Feb. 3, the city courtroom in Monroe, with its imposing dark wood walls, was decorated for a different kind of hearing with silver and white balloons. Decorative letters to the right of the judge’s bench spelled out “congratulations.”
When all were called to rise for the honorable Judge Jessica Ness, there were no stern or concerned looks; this was a celebration, a success. Yvonne Baker, a 53-year-old grandmother, had completed her community court program and had both shoplifting charges dropped. She's the program's second graduate so far.
Monroe’s community court program started 10 months ago. It’s a rehabilitative program that consists of regular check-ins between the participant and a team which includes court administrators and a counselor. Treatment plans and conditions are periodically reviewed at hearings. If the participant fails to complete the community court program, they return to facing sentencing for their crimes.
At one point, Ness came down from the bench to deliver congratulations to Baker as a community court graduate and commend her on her work. But most importantly, the judge assured Baker that she would have support and resources after graduation, causing Baker to hold back tears.
After the proceedings, the smell of coffee and laughter filled the air. People congratulated Baker on her success, including Monroe’s Mayor Geoffrey Thomas. On a food service cart with the beverages was a cake decorated with white frosting and “Congrats, Yvonne” in blue icing and rainbow star sprinkles — handmade and decorated by Judge Ness.
The celebration was well-earned. Baker said she was never taught life lessons growing up. She said she had “mismanagement in childhood,” which led to substance abuse.
“It (drugs) can take away the pain, but you still have to deal with the consequences,” Baker said.
Baker said that the program changed her thinking about risk-taking. The addictive aspect of shoplifting was the adrenaline rush.
“I’m a grandma,” Baker said. “I need to chill out.”
Baker’s pain isn’t only emotional. She depends on an older, heavy, donated walker for mobility. Baker said she was applying for Social Security benefits and wanted to re-enter the workforce.

Rick Sinnett photo

Community Court graduate Yvonne Baker holds her graduation certificate with Monore Municipal Judge Jessica Ness (at right) Friday, Feb. 3.

As a child, Baker’s mother taught her gardening, which led to a love of plants and nature. She would go to the cemetery and arrange the flowers of unkempt graves. Baker received her florist certificate in 1989. She currently sells hanging baskets at the seasonal Monroe Farmer’s Market but dreams of owning a piece of land to grow lilies and her favorite flower, the peony. Baker said peonies are more fragrant than roses but typically take two years before they bloom.
Like all candidates for community court, Baker’s background and current situation were considered by prosecutors. City of Monroe prosecutor Winston Choe said Baker was a prime candidate for community court. He said that Baker showed determination throughout.
Therapeutic courts are designed to address the reasons for a low-level, non-violent crime by using treatment and social services, whereas traditional criminal courts use punitive action. Monroe’s program includes finding the person’s social service needs, with resources available after graduation.
Choe said he supports programs such as community courts because they are designed to help offenders rehabilitate their behavior and give them accountability. He feels the therapeutic courts positively impact the individuals who go through them and their communities.
“I am all about fairness,” Choe said.



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