Gotham Gazette

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Red Hook Community Justice Center

The defendant, charged with drug possession, walked to the front of the courtroom, her head down, her hands clasped behind her back, as Judge Alex Calabrese peered down at her, and pronounced her sentence: Job training. Community service

"There are a lot of services in this building that could help you," he tells the defendant. " And it's much more likely you won't have to come back here again." He is talking about the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Opened just last month, the Justice Center is one of a handful of "community courts" across the country that re-envision how the criminal justice system should operate. By offering on-site services -- including drug treatment, G.E.D. classes to get a high school diploma, and job training -- the Center seeks to address the underlying problems that contribute to high crime rates. They also offer soup in the arraignment room.

At the same time, alternative sentences -- such as cleaning up a neighborhood park -- aim to make punishment visible while putting offenders to work in their communities. The Red Hook Justice Center joins the Midtown Community Court, which opened in Manhattan in 1993. A similar court in Harlem will open later this year. All three are designed to address one of the criminal justice system's most glaring failures: those arrested for low-level offences often are back on the streets in a matter of weeks or months, committing crimes.

The case of Paris Drake, a career criminal who had been arrested more than twenty times before allegedly attacking a woman with a brick in broad daylight last winter, highlighted the "revolving door" problem in New York's overburdened courts. Both Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have called for tougher, mandatory sentences for low-level offenders.

More defendants in the Midtown Community Court who are sentenced to community service actually do it than in any other criminal court in the city. Yet there is also a recidivism rate that is as high as those of the other courts. Still, community court supporters say the push for reform, spearheaded by New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, is building. "This language of rethinking and improving business as usual is starting to seep out," says Greg Berman, one of the Red Hook Justice Center's planners. "It's not just us."

In Red Hook, changing business as usual meant not just improving the criminal justice system, but tackling a host of other quality-of-life issues within the community. Later this year, the Justice Center will add housing and family court cases, making it the country's first multi-jurisdictional court. The Red Hook Public Safety Corps, an Americorps program housed within the Center, has already become one of the neighborhood's biggest employers. The Center's services are available not only to offenders but also to local residents who may have no connection to the criminal justice system.

"The notion of bringing courts back to the community, that courts can play a role in making communities safer, stronger-these are notions that resonate with people," says Berman, Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), a joint project of the state court system and the non-profit agency, the Fund for the City of New York.

Berman and other planners at CCI began work on the Red Hook Justice Center in 1994, meeting with community members and using the Midtown Community Court as a model. Many of the Justice Center's innovations are literally built into the building. The detention rooms, for instance, where people are held before they are brought to trial, use plate-glass windows instead of bars to allow natural light to enter.

"We felt that the building's design should reflect the principles of the program," says Berman. "We want to communicate respect for people."

Judge Calabrese says his colleagues within the judiciary wish they had the services available to him in sentencing offenders. He cites the case of a sixteen-year-old high-school dropout who appeared before him, arrested for possession of four vials of crack.

"I thought he was someone on the wrong path," said Judge Alex Calabrese. "He was working with a drug dealer, starting to make some money, and it's tough to compete with that." As part of his sentence, the young man began job training, attending GED classes, and talking to a counselor who had worked for twenty years at the state prison in Attica. "This counselor makes a very convincing argument that drugs will land you in prison in the long run.

"I think this case would've been handled very quickly downtown. They would've addressed the charge, but they wouldn't address the underlying problem. He would've gotten his jail sentence and he'd probably get out and go back to working with a dealer. I don't think he could've been straightened out."


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