It was Tuesday afternoon at the Red Hook Community Justice Center and a teenage girl accused of robbing a classmate at school stood before judge Alex Calabrese. She had one arm around her mother's waist and the other dangling at her side. The youngster, whose purple hair hung straight down her back, intended to plead guilty, but first the judge had some questions. He wanted to know if her grades had improved, whether she was keeping her 8:15 p.m. curfew and how she was getting along with her mother these days.
These questions are not unusual in a juvenile delinquency case. But the mother's responses were. She beamed as she told the court her daughter recently received a grade of "100" in one class and now comes home on time.
In court, mother and daughter both thanked the probation officer, who arranged several programs for them, including parent-child mediation.
In Red Hook's juvenile court -- unlike family court in downtown Brooklyn -- parents and children can avail themselves of a vast array of services right in the courthouse. Counseling, mentoring and mediation programs take place at the center, making it convenient for families to use the services. An on-site social worker also meets with each youngster to help determine what services are needed.
The availability of programs also means Judge Calabrese can feel confident about sending a child home to his parents, instead of to juvenile jail.
The Red Hook court began for adults in June 2000 and started taking juvenile cases in April 2001. Now, any youngsters under age 16 who are arrested in Red Hook, Sunset Park, Park Slope, South Slope, Gowanus, Cobble Hill or Wyckoff and released to their parents by the police are sent to the community justice center. The probation department then decides whether to refer the case for prosecution or resolve it out of court. The out-of-court resolution can involve counseling or mediation between the parties, something that is frequently used with altercations that began as disputes between students at school and then escalated to the point of arrest. So far, approximately 45 percent of the cases in Red Hook have been successfully resolved out of court, compared to 10 percent citywide, according to Alfred Siegal of the Center for Court Innovation, a joint venture of the state court system and the non-profit agency, the Fund for the City of New York.
If the case is flagged for prosecution, the prosecutor's office can decide whether to file charges in Red Hook or a more conventional court downtown. Only 10 cases have been filed in Red Hook in the last year, which is fewer than authorities had expected. Arrest statistics for the neighborhood indicated the court would receive up to 50 cases per year.
Several people involved with the court said this was probably due to the reluctance of Peter Reinharz, the chief prosecutor for family court, to bring cases there. Reinharz, who was nationally known for his tough-on-crime approach, resigned effective Feb. 22.
The staff at the alternative court is hopeful that the Bloomberg administration will name a new prosecutor friendly to the court's goals. One sign that Bloomberg endorses the court's approach is that he tapped Center for Court Innovation director John Feinblatt to join the city administration as criminal justice coordinator.
The Center for Court Innovation, which started the nation's first community court in midtown Manhattan in 1993, has led the way in creating alternative courts nationwide. But, while alternative courts for adults have become accepted in the last decade, alternative courts for juveniles are still very much works in progress.
In addition to the court in Red Hook, the city is also experimenting with a juvenile court in Central Harlem that works on the same principle as drug-treatment court: a system of frequent court appearances, monitoring and graduated sanctions for non-compliance. "In Harlem, there was a specific grant from the federal government to create a juvenile intake court based on a drug court model" said Alfred Siegal of the Center for Court Innovation.
The youngsters who go through the Harlem court will receive "intensive contact and monitoring," said program director Jimena Martinez. In addition, drug-treatment provider Phoenix House will run on-site programs geared towards adolescent marijuana users.
The juvenile court in Harlem opened this January and has so far arraigned just one youngster, with seven more cases "in the pipeline," according to Martinez. As with the court in Red Hook, those numbers might increase with a personnel change in the prosecutor's office.
In the last year, Calabrese has sent to juvenile jail only one child out of the 10 youngsters who have come before him. By contrast, judges in regular family court sent more than 5,000 adolescents to detention out of some 9,000 cases -- although some of that difference comes from the fact that Red Hook doesn't handle the most serious cases.
The juvenile court in Red Hook only accepts cases where the police have released the child to a guardian after arrest, which happens roughly 80 percent of the time. In the other 20 percent of the cases, police take the youngsters directly to a juvenile jail, either because of the seriousness of the charges or because the parents don't come to the precinct to pick up their children.
Still, many juveniles eligible for the court in Red Hook are not prosecuted there as of yet -- a situation the court's acting director Robert Feldstein is hoping will soon change. Red Hook offers juveniles and the judge, "better information, better options, better accountability," said Feldstein. "We can do things better."