Judge David Certo helps deliver food donations to the Community Justice Center in Indianapolis.
Judge David Certo helps deliver food donations to the Community Justice Center in Indianapolis.

Common grace in the courtroom


INDIANAPOLIS—Call it compassionate conservatism.

Or common grace.

Author Jay Hein, who runs the Sagamore Institute, refers to it as “the greater good.”

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Whatever you call it, it works well in the unusual Indianapolis courtroom of Community Court Judge David Certo. He shows how a criminal court judge can illustrate common grace or the greater good, case-by-case.

Certo doesn’t fit the stereotype of a no-nonsense conservative judge. He talks about dignity and respect for the offenders who come before him for sentencing. He has a food and clothing pantry for hungry and homeless lawbreakers. And he and his small staff try to help offenders find jobs.

His facility doesn’t even look much like a traditional court building. He works out of a two-story brick structure in a historic section of Indianapolis called Fountain Square. The renovated building has more of residential look than a legal one, and the sign on the outside just says: “Community Justice Center.” On the same block is Siam Square and Thai Cuisine, and the neighborhood offers old homes for fix up along with several art and culture ventures.

Certo may not fit the image, but the judge is a small government conservative who defends his approach as a fiscally responsible and efficient way to fight crime.

The court, part of Marion County Superior Courts, focuses on non-violent offenders in one area of the city. It mainly handles public intoxication, trespass, shoplifting, drug abuse, and prostitution cases. Certo said the focus on smaller offenses could cut the crime rate indirectly, by freeing up jail space for those who really need to be locked up.

“If I can take people out of the system and get them on the straight path, we’ve allocated our resources better,” he said in an interview between court sessions. “As a conservative, I want to do what works. If treating people like neighbors works, let’s do more of that.”

In court he addresses offenders with a mix of threats of jail sentences and polite inquiries about their health. “Take care of yourself and stay out of trouble,” he concluded in sending a man charged with public intoxication to alcohol abuse treatment and two days on a community cleanup crew. “Let us know if we can help you in any way. We have food. We have clothing. We have a variety of ways we can help.”

In about 10 percent of the cases, the judge sends a person to jail. But he prefers to see them motivated to get a job and help for alcohol abuse, sometimes through an assignment to a Salvation Army rehabilitation center.

Other offenders are sentenced to work crews for neighborhood cleanups. Some also appear before a neighborhood impact panel, to hear from community leaders about how trespass or public drunkenness looks to crime victims.

“We’re trying to get people’s attention, not by hitting them over the head,” Certo said. “If you get arrested, and the end result is that you get a job, then everybody wins.”

Judge Certo offers an illustration of what Jay Hein reviews in two new books, The Quiet Revolution and The Greater Good. The first book has reflections on Hein’s service for President George W. Bush, running the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the final two years of the Bush administration. In his second book Hein covers everything from prisoner reentry efforts to entrepreneurs investing in economic development in Africa. The revolution is quiet because people like Certo don’t make lots of noise as they pursue their good works. But it is news when a judge practices his kind of creative conservatism.

In an era when evangelical Christians can be discouraged about cultural trends, the theme of common grace in books or courtrooms can offer an important light shining in dark places.​

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.


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