March 1, 2017

A model community court

Governing - At the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, the hallways are wide and welcoming and lined with artful photos of the neighborhood. Defendants’ holding cells are walled in thick glass -- not bars -- and the entire place is bathed in natural light. Instead of imposing dark paneling, the open-plan rooms have crisp white walls and blond wood. In one meeting room, a wall-sized mural painted by teens in the neighborhood shows a lively streetscape at the intersection of “2nd Chance Street” and “Perseverance Road.” Throughout the facility, instructions on signs go out of their way to be polite, even to criminal suspects. “Questions?” reads a placard near a set of metal detectors. “Our court officers are happy to help.”

The unconventional vibe continues once defendants find themselves in front of the judge -- Judge Alex Calabrese, who has served as the public face and the sole judge of this groundbreaking justice center since it opened 17 years ago. His bench sits at eye level with the defendants, rather than looking down on them from above, to better facilitate a dialogue. During proceedings, Calabrese makes sure that defendants understand what’s going on. He talks with them about problems in their lives and how they might address them. He smiles. He asks engaging questions: Have you ever been in treatment for drug addiction? Do you have kids? Are you happy with the shape your life is taking? “We want them to know that we want them to be successful,” Calabrese says. “They’re so used to getting knocked on their head by the court system.”

Some of Calabrese’s interactions with defendants can be almost startlingly polite. If, for example, repeat offenders have never been offered drug rehabilitation services, “I will apologize,” says Calabrese. “That’s just not right. It’s not fair.” After carefully explaining how he reached his rulings, he often ends proceedings with a handshake or a hug. If a defendant has had a particularly dramatic turnaround, the judge may even applaud.

More than a decade and a half after it first opened its doors, the Red Hook Community Justice Center remains one of the most innovative courts in the nation. It’s not just the physical attributes of the building or the avuncular demeanor of the judge, though both of those stand in stark contrast to most other courts. Rather, the Red Hook court was conceived as an entirely new approach to justice, a way to reconnect defendants to their community by providing them the services they need. More than anything else, what sets this court apart is a fundamental idea of respect. Treat defendants with respect, and they’ll respect you -- and the law -- in the future. It’s a radical departure from historical approaches. But what’s truly radical is just how successful the idea has been.

Community courts, which focus on problem-solving rather than just meting out punishments, are not a new concept. There are dozens throughout the world, many of them in the New York area. Red Hook, which has been in operation since 2000, wasn’t even the first community court in New York City; one opened in Times Square in 1993. Because they often send offenders to drug rehabilitation and other jail-diversion programs -- Calabrese’s sentences are more likely to involve cleaning graffiti or completing drug treatment than going to jail or paying a fine -- community courts reduce the amount of time defendants spend in jail. They also reduce recidivism. Both are primary objectives of criminal justice reform efforts around the country.


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