‘Can I get a Clinic update please?’

‘Sure Judge. Mr Smith* tested positive for opiates and cocaine today. He attended four out of five treatment sessions last week. Mr Smith tested positive for opiates and cocaine in those sessions.’

A silence engulfed the courtroom.

‘Can you come up to the bench Mr Smith?’

Mr Smith approached tentatively, looking vulnerable and ashamed. I thought to myself, ‘surely this time the Judge will not find anything positive to say to poor Mr Smith.’ But I was wrong…

I finished my law degree in June 2017 at Monash University and decided to learn a little about the world before settling into full time work in Melbourne. In August and September 2017 I was very fortunate to work as an intern for the Honourable Judge Alex Calabrese at the Red Hook Community Justice Centre, in New York City. In only five short weeks, I gained a remarkable insight into the workings of the centre, formed relationships with its staff, and worked on eye-opening projects.

Established in 2000, Red Hook Community Justice Centre is America’s first multi-jurisdictional community court. Judge Calabrese, the sole judge at the court, has presided there since it opened and hears criminal, housing and family cases from three large police precincts in Brooklyn. The court has jurisdiction over cases involving misdemeanours and low-level felonies, examples of which include possession of marijuana, driving without valid registration, or petty theft.

The court does not employ an adversarial approach in its operation. Rather, it functions as a ‘problem-solving’ community court and seeks to uphold its core principles of due process and constitutional rights. The rationale of a community court is that ordering a fine or a short jail sentence will solve neither the defendant’s, nor the public interest’s problems. Red Hook uses social workers on site to identify and address the underlying issues that caused the offender to be involved in the justice system. They do this to prevent this from re-occurring and to provide case resolutions which can often help the offender get his or her life back on track. The problem-solving approach also increases public confidence and trust in the justice system.

Red Hook operates as a community justice centre in addition to a court. It combines punishment with help and issues sanctions including community service, educational programmes and longer-term drug treatment in an effort to reduce recidivism and support the offenders. Unlike typical courts, it not only directs offenders to special programs, it actually conducts many of them.  I sat in on a Quality of Life session, where a professional social worker educated the men and women sent there as part of their sentences for minor crimes that affected people’s ‘quality of life’. Rather than simply receiving a fine for urinating on the street or drinking alcohol in public, the presenter talked about the reasons these behaviours could be disruptive and offensive to the public. The participants seemed to emerge from the session with a newfound sense of empathy and understanding.

The centre also refers members of the Red Hook community to a conflict resolution program known as peacemaking. Peacemaking is a traditional Native American approach to attaining justice and resolving disputes and prioritises healing and restoration to accomplish this. Participants in a peacemaking session are all treated equally and encouraged to discuss their crimes or conflicts, with the ultimate objective of resolving their disputes and repairing their relationships. Coleta Walker, the Associate Director of the Peacemaking Programme at Red Hook, told me about conflicts she has helped to resolve in peacemaking sessions. These stories about the healing of broken family relationships were powerful and inspiring and a compelling testament to the efficacy of the peacemaking approach.

The atmosphere at Red Hook is very different from that of traditional courts. The building itself, originally a Catholic school, has been artfully refurbished and is a bright, open and unintimidating setting for a courthouse. I saw police officers and court clerks who were consistently respectful of defendants, with no hostility between the district attorneys and defence attorneys. It’s all presided over by Judge Calabrese, who is always optimistic.

The staff at Red Hook are strong advocates for the principle of procedural justice – that is, the fairness in the decision-making process. The Judge speaks to the defendants directly, in a kind tone, to ensure that they understand what is going on and to give them a voice. He often shakes their hand at the conclusion of their court appearance to congratulate them for overcoming a hurdle, such as testing negative for drugs or paying off their tenancy debts.

When Mr Smith tested positive for opiates and cocaine, I imagined the Judge would this time have to reprimand him. Instead, the Judge found a way to instil confidence; congratulating Mr Smith for continuously attending his treatment sessions and coming to court for compliance checks. Mr Smith was clearly empowered and humbled by these words. These small gestures of kindness, in the long run, can make a big difference.

The success stories at Red Hook are plentiful: the court has significantly reduced recidivism, restored trust in the justice system and more generally, has improved the safety and spirit of the Red Hook community. Community courts have proliferated in the US; there are now over fifty community courts around the country and several others around the world, which have adopted the model pioneered by Red Hook Community Justice Centre.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC), in Melbourne, Australia, was built in 2007 and models the Red Hook Community Justice Centre in its approach to reducing crime, increasing community safety, and administering procedural justice. Like Red Hook, the NJC has reduced recidivism, improved offender compliance and increased community work. This community court is currently the only community court in Australia. Given the disproportionate Indigenous imprisonment rates, the success of the NJC, and its focus on access to justice and community, many other Australian jurisdictions would benefit profoundly from the work of a community court.

Before I arrived at Red Hook, I did not understand what a community court was or how it could operate so differently from a traditional court. Within days, I observed the tangible advantages of this non-adversarial court system and the trust, respect and friendliness in the courtroom. Judge Calabrese makes it look easy. It isn’t but nonetheless, the value of the model is clear.

*Not his real name

Article by Author/s
Alix Friedman
Alix recently completed her bachelor of Arts/Law at Monash University. She has taken six months off to travel the world and undertake two interesting internships; one at Red Hook Community Justice Centre in NYC and one at the International Bar Association in London, before commencing a graduate legal position at Minter Ellison in 2018.

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