August 18, 2016

Britain turns to community courts


Ministers have given the go-ahead for New-York-style problem-solving courts in which judges review the progress of convicted offenders after sentence with the aim of keeping them out of prison.

Such courts – which often specialise in handling drug or alcohol addiction, domestic abuse and housing cases – involve imposing non-custodial punishments. Those convicted have to appear regularly before the judge to be assessed.

The justice secretary, Michael Gove, has expressed enthusiasm for the type of problem-solving courts developed in New York and met some of the US judges who run them.

The US tribunals focus on identifying and dealing with each offender’s underlying problems and preventing their re-offending. If they fail to engage with rehabilitiation efforts they can be sent to prison.

Gove has pledged to reform prisons without reducing the inmate population but this latest initiative derives from New York judges whose explicit aim is to end America’s enthusiasm for mass incarceration.

Last summer the justice secretary, Michael Gove, visited Newark municipal court in New Jersey, where convicted offenders are brought back regularly to have progress on community sentences assessed. The judge can send offenders to prison for failing to comply with rehabilitation orders.

Judge Alex Calabrese, who presides over criminal courts in Red Hook, Brooklyn, also met Gove in London last December and explained more about the pioneering US community courts he oversees.

The Red Hook court uses an enhanced range of community and social service sentencing options. A proportion of defendants are given medium- or long-term judicially supervised treatment orders for drug addiction, mental illness, or other problems.

The majority of defendants receive short-term social or community service sanctions, typically five days or less in length. The aim is to identify and resolve problems in the community and reduce the number of conventional jail sentences handed down.

The first such community court in the US was set up in Manhattan’s midtown area in 1993. It worked with businesses that were losing trade because crime was so disruptive around Times Square.

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