October 30, 2015

Red Hook Youth Court: Fifteen years of alternative justice

Brooklyn Magazine - Red Hook Youth Court is one of five operating Youth Courts in the city; other locations are in Queens, Staten Island, Harlem, Brownsville, and Newark. Youth Courts in New York operate in partnership with Community Justice Centers, like the one in Red Hook...

Rather than herding young people into an overcrowded and frequently immoderately punitive system, Youth Court members deliver rehabilitative sanctions to teens for misdemeanors in an effort to nudge them back on track early on, before things have a chance to get really bad. Most often sanctions take the form of community service, apology letters, job training, or anger management classes. Empathetic, early intervention—from peers, rather than authority figures—it’s believed, gives the youth respondents an unprecedented opportunity to be a real life hero in their own Choose Your Own Adventure story. Making a course adjustment at a critical juncture can bring about a dramatically different ending. 

On a given evening, Youth Court members will conduct between one to three juried cases of peers who have committed misdemeanors—truancy, fare evasion, possession of marijuana or a low-grade weapon, trespassing, fighting—non-indictable offenses that have been referred to the Youth Court by the New York City Probation Department, Brooklyn Law Department, and local police precincts and schools.

Community Justice Centers are one of many operating programs initiated by the Center for Court Innovation, located on 18th Street in Manhattan. In addition to community courts, the Center operates mediation programs, mental health and infant courts, and conducts research to create more effective systems for keeping offenders out of a criminal justice system that has long operated more like a non-rehabilitative black hole than an effective form of punishment.

Justice Centers, like the one in Red Hook, also serve adults who have committed real crimes. Judge Alex Calabrese has presided over every single case in the Justice Center’s criminal and family court since its first day of operation. In that time, he has reduced the number of adult offenders that have gone to jail by 35 percent. Rehabilitative programs are offered in place of detention in every possible instance. And, in the process, taxpayers save five thousand dollars per defendant compared to the cost of processing the same case in regular criminal court. In cases of recidivism, after offenders have been given generous second chances, Judge Calabrese will often send them to jail for twice as long. 

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