The Red Hook Community Justice Center, a program of the Center for Court Innovation, offers a population over 200,000 people (three police precincts) an alternative to the traditional courthouse. It’s a smart organization that aims to prevent and reduce incarceration and build trust in the Red Hook community. Now in its 15th year, the country’s first multi-jurisdictional community court focuses on solving neighborhood cases and offering the community at large a variety of free services.
The idea is that the center meets the needs of both the community and the victim, while providing productive services and potentially changing the behavior of the defendant.
The center’s key features are coordination, restitution, help, accountability, and prevention. Judge Alex Calabrese sees low-level criminal cases and selected Family and Civil Court matters and links defendants up with a variety of sanctions, including community service and on and off-site social services; Calabrese then follows up with offenders to ensure progress. At the center, 78 percent of offenders received community or social service sanctions, compared to 20 percent at similar courthouses throughout Brooklyn, and over 85 percent of defendants reported that their cases were handled fairly, regardless of background.
The results? According to research, Red Hook has seen reduced incarceration (by 35 percent), reduced recidivism, heightened public trust and support, reduced fear, and cost savings for taxpayers.
Karen Gopee, the court attorney, and Calabrese welcomed me to the Red Hook Community Justice Center and gave me a tour of their huge, refurbished Catholic school. There is a court room, where Calabrese swiftly passes papers to his left, his right, stamps his signature, and signs wherever required. Cases are fairly quick, and Calabrese sees hundreds of defendants each week. And there is more to the center than just the court: Gopee showed me the classroom where GED courses are offered; she showed me the youth court, where neighborhood kids cover cases for their peers; and she introduced me to key staff members – social workers, peacemakers, and more.
One of the most interesting programs that Gopee shared with me was the advocacy they undertake for New York City Housing Authority residents. When they hear of a housing-related complaint from the Red Hook Houses, a center staffmember goes into the specific apartment and takes photos of the incident for documentation, and the center streamlines these complaints (if valid) to NYCHA. In 2013, the center created a guide called Rent, Repairs, and Rights: A Guide to Housing Court for NYCHA Tenants.
The center’s focus is community, as revealed by its offerings. If there is a service that they cannot provide in house, they look to partner organizations. So, they look forward to more partnerships, specifically with SUNY Geneseo, that might link Red Hook community members with our resources like research, tutoring, and coursework.
For more information on the center, see the links below:
PBS Independent Lens: Red Hook Justice
New York Times: A court keeps people out of Rikers while remaining tough