Nov 18, 2013

SFGate: "Brooklyn community court a national model"

Report: Brooklyn community court a national model
By Jake Pearson, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — A small courthouse along Brooklyn's waterfront is being hailed as a national model for community courts, where low-level misdemeanors are tried and punishments carried out in the same community where the crime happened.

A federally funded study of the Red Hook Community Justice Center found it doled out far fewer jail sentences than a traditional court, increased community service sentences and had fewer cases in which defendants could "walk" with time-served or fines.

The study, commissioned by National Institute of Justice, said the approach has resulted in a savings of $15 million a year in case processing and other costs.

The idea behind the courthouse is simple: The Justice Center is a part of the community — hearing housing, family and criminal court cases — and is staffed by a single judge who is able to use his discretion in meting out sentences that almost always involve community service in the neighborhood where the crime is committed. The hope is that offenders then begin to take ownership of their neighborhoods, thus committing fewer crimes there.

"In a city as ginormous as New York, these cases get lost in the shuffle, and they're handled by judges and attorneys who may have never set foot in the neighborhood before," said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that helps provide the justice center's programs. "How did Red Hook accomplish reductions in re-offenses? We treat them with decency and respect and fairness, and that got them to comply with court orders, to obey the law."

Community courts focus on misdemeanor crimes — such as fare beating, prostitution, low-level drug possession and shoplifting — that account for about 80 percent of cases in state courts nationwide. In Red Hook, juvenile offenders are 20 percent less likely to re-offend than their peers in traditional courthouses downtown, the report found.

The study, which included 52 group and individual interviews, a door-to-door survey of the Red Hook neighborhood, a statistical analysis of court cases and a cost-efficiency evaluation, is billed as the most comprehensive ever for a community court.

The Red Hook Justice Center, which opened in 2000 in a former schoolhouse, sentenced 7 percent of its defendants to jail compared to 17 percent in downtown court but imposed longer sentences when it did, the report said.

"The Justice Center closely monitors compliance with alternative sanctions, reserving jail primarily as a "secondary" sanction to be imposed when a defendant fails to fulfill a social or community service mandate," wrote the report's authors at the National Center for State Courts.

There are about 40 such community courts nationwide and some in countries such as South Africa and Australia. In New York, the Midtown Community Court opened in 1993, and a third community court is planned for the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.

Stacey Cornelius, 47, credits the Red Hook courthouse for getting her clean after a 2008 arrest for buying drugs. She was sent upstate for a month of drug rehabilitation and then sentenced to another nine months of intensive, four times-per-week counseling that, if she missed, would result in a year in jail. She says she's been sober ever since.

"He helped me to do what I was supposed to do," she said of Judge Calabrese. "Now I'm just focused on me."

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