In 1998, Portland's courts undertook an experiment: Instead of clogging the courtrooms and jails for months at a time, people who had been charged with minor offenses in North Portland could go to Community Court. The punishments were more like those from a strict, but benevolent high school principal: In exchange for a guilty plea, defendants agreed to do service around their neighborhoods and write an essay about their wrongdoing.

The program was so successful that it spread to Southeast Portland and downtown, and inspired similar programs around the country. Now, nearly half of Portland's 13,000 yearly misdemeanor cases are arraigned in Community Court. The program has received national attention as an effective way to ease strains on the system, and as a kinder, gentler way to treat non-violent offenders. The program has been praised for swiftly absorbing heroic portions of docket-clogging misdemeanor cases--charges like prostitution, trespassing within drug-free zones, and shoplifting.

Only problem is, like seemingly every program these days, it is short on cash. The federal seed money that sprouted the program will dry up within months. Even other supporters--like the state, county, and city--are being forced to reassess their own budgets. Desperate for survival, Project Coordinator Robyn Gregory has asked the cash-strapped Multnomah County for a $500,000 bailout.

"If Community Court ceases to exist," says Gregory, "Portland will see a return to a type of turnstile justice." Although critics call these new courts too lenient, advocates say this approach keeps individual offenders personally accountable.

One recent defendant, charged with underage drinking, seemed downright surprised at the approach, as he sat in court, clutching his dense, handwritten essay. "They actually made me think, instead of tossing me in jail with a bunch of criminals to dream up new ways to get in trouble."

It could be as late as June before the County responds to the request for funds.