Launched in June 2000, the Red Hook Community Justice Center was the country’s first multi-jurisdictional community court, combining neighborhood cases that would ordinarily be split among the civil, family, and criminal court systems.
“We’re looking at the types of cases that come through the criminal justice system, and trying to work out more meaningful outcomes.” James Brodick of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) spoke with us this month about the strengths of community-based courts, as evidenced by CCI’s innovative center in Brooklyn, the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Launched in June 2000, the Red Hook Community Justice Center was the country’s first multi-jurisdictional community court, combining neighborhood cases that would ordinarily be split among the civil, family, and criminal court systems.
Housed in a refurbished catholic school, the center has only a single judge (Honorable Judge Alex Calabrese) that oversees all of the lower-level felony and misdemeanor arrests from three police precincts in the neighborhoods of Red Hook, Clinton Hill, Sunset Park, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope. The center was a follow-up demonstration project by CCI, after the success of the Midtown Community Court, which was the nation’s first. The goal? To offer a coordinated, holistic approach to problem-solving that incorporates an array of unconventional programs and social services to prevent crime and engage the community.
“Before the courts were centralized in the 1960s, courts used to be in communities. The idea was that the judges and attorneys knew more about the neighborhoods they were prosecuting or administering justice to,” James told us. For the purposes of efficiency, New York decided to put all of their courts within centralized locations so that all of the judges, prosecutors, and paperwork could be handled in the same place. “It’s easier to run a court that way, but it lost the feel of a community. All we are is an arm of the justice system.”
A product of collaboration, community justice centers like the one in Red Hook are fully functioning courts, but they integrate traditionally separate agencies: criminal justice operations, social service providers, public defender, police officers, and community residents. Those picked up for relatively minor offenses within the three precincts that work with the Red Hook Center will find themselves in a place that offers them supervised treatment programs instead of incarceration. It’s a criminal justice outlook that attempts to prevent major crimes from happening in the future by giving relatively minor crimes appropriately proportional responses, and recognizing that social conditions and individual circumstances may have played a part in the offense. It is a far cry from the habits of traditional courts, where overwhelming caseloads lead to more defendants taking plea bargains and few social services are offered to ameliorate the underlying issues that might have landed them in court in the first place.
As James describes it, the community justice center model is aimed at stopping the revolving door. This is accomplished through close ties to the community, and engaging neighborhood residents continuously in the hopes that if they feel more involved, they are more likely to obey the law and help their neighbors speak out when crimes are committed. Justice becomes a facet of the neighborhood.
“I don’t think that every neighborhood in New York needs a community court, but certainly there are neighborhoods that have had the same problems year after year, where I think a community court makes sense. In Red Hook, it made sense because of the crack epidemic and everything that was going on there, and in Brownsville it makes sense because—over the last twenty years, whether it’s gun crimes and gangs—it’s a community that has been forgotten.”
James is working on the ground right now to establish connections in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to open up a new community justice center modeled on Red Hook. He is meeting with community groups, doing surveys, establishing youth councils, and trying to find those social service organizations that will play a large role in the success of the center. And just as with the establishment of Red Hook, the first step is to look at the community and see what services would be welcomed, potentially including domestic violence counseling, support groups, family services, free legal referrals, adult education, drug treatment, GED classes, and mentoring.
When James and his team first arrived in Red Hook to assess the community’s needs, they found a neighborhood geographically and functionally isolated from the rest of Brooklyn. Illegal dumping, abandoned buildings, and skyrocketing drug use and violence had turned the community of around 11,000 residents into what Life magazine called one of the ten worst neighborhoods in the country, labeling it “the crack capital of America.” Today, the 76th precinct (one of the three that flow directly into the Red Hook Center) is one of the safest in the five boroughs, and New York Magazine recently called Red Hook one of the hottest neighborhoods to move into. Between 1993 and 2002, homicides were down 100 percent, felony assaults down 68 percent, robberies 55 percent, and rapes 33 percent.
“I love that when I first got to Red Hook, there were 12,000 people and 7,500 lived in public housing,” Brodick recalls. “When I left Red Hook, there were 12,000 people and 7,500 lived in public housing.” The demographic of the remaining 4,500 residents may have shifted from working class families to young, middle-class professionals and artists, but the character of the neighborhood remains the same. The most dramatic change, as found by a study conducted by Brodick’s group in conjunction with AmeriCorps, is that the perception of the justice system has improved and community members feel safer in their own neighborhood. Brodick believes that “we’re not displacing folks to say, ‘hey, we got rid of crime by moving people away.’ We actually changed attitudes.”
Brownsville, an area in eastern Brooklyn, is a neighborhood with 116,579 residents (77.1% black, 18.8% latino, 5.4% Caucasian, 1.9% Asian/Pacific Islander, according to data from 2008) who are struggling with issues similar to those facing Red Hook residents in the early 1990s. The median income is hover just below $18,000, and the 2000 census found that 41% of the residents received income support. The schools have permanent metal detectors and the dropout rates are staggering, as violent crime rates refuse to drop despite an overall reduction in crime citywide.
“When we first come into a neighborhood, we look at community-based organizations who have been out here a long time and have a good reputation. And we basically say, ‘we will offer you a desk, a telephone, and an audience of people you can serve if you’d be willing to give us a staff person.” This sort of co-location, Brodick says, benefits the organization because they have easy access to clients that they can meaningfully help in an environment focused on change, and the community court gains another trained staff member onsite. In a city that is so rich with small, community-focused treatment centers, CCI has to constantly monitor and evaluate where clients are being referred, to make sure that the partnership is working. “We never want to say to an organization that we know the best way to do their treatment, but there are minimum requirements [dictated by the court system] for a case to be dismissed.”
CCI is attempting to employ an alternative to the court system as it stand right now, by focusing on community engagement, collaboration, and accountability. As James puts it, “a community court doesn’t work without community.”
CCI doesn’t seem to be saying that community justice isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for every neighborhood, but rather that the principles of accountability and collaboration can be ported into existing structures that are working to make them better. In particular, the group is focused on figuring out which social services communities need clearer, more effective access to, and how to connect those services (whether its drug treatment, domestic violence awareness, mental health therapy) to the criminal justice system.