July 11, 2014

‘How do you walk away from Jesus?’: Faith influences one-of-a-kind court in goal to help offenders change their lives

Judge David Certo of the Indianapolis Community Court visits with volunteers at the Officer David S. Moore Foundation Food Pantry, one of the court’s many efforts to help people who have committed non-violent, non-sexual crimes turn around their lives. Marsha Fecht, a volunteer from St. Patrick Parish in Indianapolis, listens to the judge. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Judge David Certo of the Indianapolis Community Court visits with volunteers at the Officer David S. Moore Foundation Food Pantry, one of the court’s many efforts to help people who have committed non-violent, non-sexual crimes turn around their lives. Marsha Fecht, a volunteer from St. Patrick Parish in Indianapolis, listens to the judge. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series of stories called The Catholic Connection: Changing Lives in the Criminal Justice System.)

By John Shaughnessy

A courtroom isn’t a place that most people associate with compassion, second chances and a judge who is described as “walking the Beatitudes.”

Yet spend some time in Indianapolis Community Court, talk with Judge David Certo and the stories start to flow about the steadfast hope and remarkable sense of human dignity that guide this court—the only one of its kind in Indiana.

The stories sometimes depict how a life has been transformed—like the homeless, jobless man who had been arrested several times for alcohol-related offenses.

He grasped the court’s offer of a second chance, performed community service and entered a treatment program—all part of a rehabilitation that eventually led him to his own home and a job as a substance abuse counselor.

There are also the stories of mothers helping to feed and clothe their families through the court’s food pantry and donated clothing pantry—assistance that is available both to offenders who come to court and struggling, vulnerable people from across the city.

Then there are the stories of the court’s efforts to help veterans. Through a screening process that asks the court’s defendants if they have served in the military, veterans are assigned a day in court when an official from the Veterans Administration will be there—an arrangement Certo has established to help veterans get housing, medical treatment and job training.

It’s all part of a court that believes in helping people strive for a better life, a court that has a strong influence of Catholic faith—including the leadership of former seminarian Certo, the compassion of numerous food pantry volunteers and the service of high school students.

“Our first priority is making our community safer,” says Certo, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “But how we’re going to get there is a conversation we should have more often. In our line of work, we know life is hard for people. We don’t want to make it any harder.

“Part of what we do is just helping people. The fact that I want to get to heaven fuels what I do, too. It’s about all of us treating each other as neighbors.”

Seeing the glass as more than half-full

That approach of concern and connection was evident in a recent session of Indianapolis Community Court.

Defendants included a well-groomed college student in a blue sports jacket, a young woman who took time off work to be in court, and a weary-looking man who told the judge that his car broke down and he supports his wife and son with a job that pays $10 an hour.

All have committed low-level, non-violent, non-sexual crimes—many of them shoplifting and alcohol-related charges. And all have agreed to plead guilty with the understanding that the charges will be dismissed if they complete some combination of community service, a treatment program, a session about the impact of their crime on the community, and the stipulation that they aren’t arrested again within 60 days.

Appearances in the court are also set up to try to accommodate a person’s work, school and family schedules.

“My theory is that government can be pretty good about mailing you a check, but not good about asking how you are, how your kids are,” Certo says. “In our classes, we ask them about their goals. We try to help them get jobs. If you complete the program and get a job, we’ll give you a bike to get to work.”

Located in the Fountain Square neighborhood, the court also offers free haircuts, bus passes, legal services and testing for sexually-transmitted diseases.

“We’re working very hard to see the glass half-full—and to help you fill it up,” Certo says.

“Our goal is to try to get them from a bad place to a better place. We try to be creative in what we do. We also challenge them to do things differently. I’m using techniques that I know work.”

In 2013, 1,561 people entered the community court, with 1,039 finishing the program—for a successful completion rate of 67 percent.

“In our model, the community benefits, too, because you have to do community service,” Certo says.

Offenders work to improve neighborhoods by cleaning up abandoned properties, stocking shelves at food banks, and picking up trash in alleys and along interstates.

“We think our program is different. We’re trying to get to know you so you won’t come back—no offense,” Certo says with a smile. His expression quickly turns serious as he adds, “But if it doesn’t work out, we’re going to hold them accountable.”

That can mean jail time. Still, the overall approach is reflected in his decision to convert a conference room into a food pantry.

‘How do you walk away from Jesus?’

The food pantry is named in honor of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer David Moore, a 2000 graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis who died on Jan. 26, 2011, three days after being shot four times while making a traffic stop.

“He was so instrumental in working with people that we thought we would carry on his mission, his life,” says Mary Anne Schaefer, the director of the food pantry.

Schaefer’s regular job is pastoral associate of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis, yet she’s also part of a group of people from St. Joan, St. Roch Parish, St. Mark the Evangelist Parish and the court’s nearby neighbor—St. Patrick Parish—who volunteer at the food pantry when it’s open five times a month.

“This is the face of Jesus right here,” Schaefer says, referring to the nearly 50 individuals and families who have come to the food pantry on a Thursday afternoon. “In the last three years, we’ve served over 8,000 individuals. We serve the neighborhood at large—people from all denominations, of all ages.”

Schaefer excuses herself to help a young mother with two small sons. She smiles at the mom, jokes with the children and makes sure they walk away with a few grocery bags that include meat, vegetables, cereal, potatoes, bread and desserts.

Returning to the conversation, she says, “On my off days and free days, this is my passion. How do you walk away from Jesus? This is the walk. This is the journey. You have the opportunity to humble yourself for the people who are here. We see Jesus every time we’re here.”

As Schaefer pauses to talk, other Catholic volunteers—Tamara Carr, Barb Elpers, Marsha Fecht and Sally Lennon—hustle to help people. A short while later, Judge Certo stops by to talk with the volunteers and food pantry clients.

The judge and Schaefer both mention the contributions of teachers, students and parents of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis.

Students have a canned food drive that benefits the pantry. And every Thanksgiving, the school community prepares, cooks and brings more than 400 meals—turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans and desserts—to the court facility where people line up to get meals to take home. The dinners are also delivered to homes.

“It’s what we’re called to do as Christians—to live out the Gospel,” says Bill Sahm, president of Bishop Chatard High School. “Being part of it makes a big difference for our families. It’s an opportunity for our students to have a positive effect on someone’s life.”

Sahm sees that same quality in Judge Certo.

‘He’s walking the Beatitudes’

“I’ve noticed that he really has a definite commitment to serving the poor,” Sahm says. “His wife and children are involved on Thanksgiving, too. I know the whole concept of that court is rehabilitation instead of punishment. He’s involved with the people he sees in court.”

Schaefer shares a similar thought about Certo: “He’s walking the Beatitudes, as is every person who volunteers here. He has a heart for people in need.”

Certo embraces that compliment, but he sees the court’s approach as a team effort. He talks about staff members who “go into their pockets” to help people. He mentions the contributions of prosecutors and public defenders. And he praises the food pantry volunteers.

He also draws strength from the people who appear before him in court. Reluctant to talk about himself, the father of four does share one story about a former defendant who approached him on the street as he was talking to two friends.

“He walked up, said, ‘Hey, Judge,’ and told me he was staying out of trouble and taking care of himself.”

Certo smiles and adds, “The best thing is seeing people do things they didn’t think they could do—not getting arrested, being sober for six months, getting a job or a house. Those things are immensely satisfying. And it’s very humbling when defendants say this court is different—that we’re trying to help them, that we’re helping them set goals.”

As he walks from his office to the courtroom, Certo passes under a sign that reads, “Judge Like A Champion Today.”

A gift from his wife, Megan, the sign reflects his connection with the University of Notre Dame and the long-time theme of the school’s football team, “Play Like A Champion Today.” A 1993 graduate, Certo says Notre Dame’s emphasis on making a difference in the world is one of the approaches that guide him.

“I have the great privilege of integrating my work with the things I believe in,” he says. “My dad died young. That taught me a lot about living. If I get hit by a bus, I don’t want to make apologies.

“You can treat people with dignity and respect. I think you get better outcomes with that approach. Ultimately, we all want a safer, more humane society. Even when people struggle, I know we can get there.”

(For anyone wanting to donate to or volunteer at the Officer David S. Moore Foundation Food Pantry at the Indianapolis Community Court, contact Mary Anne Schaefer at 317-224-7965.)

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