Law & Borders: In Red Hook, a Justice Center Courts an Entire Community

Print More

Pinched between the Gowanus Expressway and New York Harbor, Red Hook is both blessed and plagued by its isolation. The neighborhood has a small-town feel, and the waterfront views are stunning. But Red Hook’s 11,000 residents are cut off from the rest of Brooklyn, and they are mostly poor. Poverty and remoteness go hand in hand here. Their toll is apparent in garbage-strewn lots, car pounds and junkyards that dot the neighborhood.

Red Hook’s isolation has also made it the guinea pig for an experiment in criminal justice. When it opens in November, the Red Hook Community Justice Center will be using the enclave as a laboratory to test some of the newest ideas in the field. Its developer, the Center for Court Innovation, wants to see if a high-crime community can turn itself around–not by exporting its criminals to courts downtown and jails upstate, but by integrating criminal justice into the fabric of day-to-day life. The idea is to transform a neighborhood where crime is pervasive into a community where the power of the court is just as far-reaching.

“Isolation is the main issue Red Hook has to confront, but it’s a plus for us because we have the opportunity to evaluate impact,” explains Greg Berman, deputy director of CCI. “Inevitably we will touch the lives of almost everybody who lives and works in Red Hook.”

Law and order are hard to avoid here. In 1992, a beloved neighborhood principal was killed accidentally in a shootout, horrifying the community. Three years ago, during an early-morning drug sweep of the sprawling Red Hook Houses, where three-fourths of the neighborhood lives, residents woke to see many of their neighbors in handcuffs.

By combining a court and social service center into one building–a formerly abandoned parochial school–the justice center on Visitation Place is supposed to transform the endless cycles of crime and punishment into a force for change. Focusing on quality-of-life crimes, the court will offer alternative sentencing that can benefit the neighborhood–a graffiti artist might be required to paint over tags, or a turnstile-jumper to clean up a trash-strewn lot. Eventually, the justice center will also handle cases normally heard in Housing Court and Family Court, which, like criminal courts, touch the lives of many Red Hook residents.

But this court won’t only contain courtrooms. It’s also a port of entry to a wealth of public services, from group and individual counseling, health screenings, job training and child care to rooms for community meetings. And these will be available not just to the court’s defendants but to every resident of Red Hook. With holding cells that use reinforced glass instead of bars, clean white walls and a staff of counselors on hand, this is the first court in the country selling itself as an agent of community transformation.

“It creates an opportunity for residents to feel a closer connection to the criminal justice system,” says Michael Frett, the Brooklyn district attorney’s liaison to the court project. “Whether we like it or not, we have to consider that crime affects communities.”

The justice center is built on that provocative assessment: that Red Hook simply cannot afford to ignore the fact that victimization, punishment and legal tangles shape life here. “Many residents know someone, either a friend or a relative, who has been the perpetrator of a crime,” notes Berman.

But some residents and criminal justice experts say they’re wary of the presumptions behind the court. “There’s an inherent danger of the justice system being the biggest and prettiest and most available resource in a community,” worries Elizabeth Gaines, executive director of the Osborne Association, whose justice-reform think tank has been a consultant on the Red Hook court. “Children are left with the impression that the justice system is necessarily a part of their lives.”

CCI is betting that the potential payoff of a safer, healthier neighborhood is worth it. With research staff watching closely, the Red Hook experiment will show whether it is possible to convert the criminal justice system from a force that has fractured a community into one that helps piece it back together. “All our projects are designed as experiments,” says Berman. “What we’re trying to test here is how a community and a court can work together.”


Though it will never see a murder case or a drug bust, the Community Justice Center started with a bullet. When elementary school principal Patrick Daly was caught in the crossfire of a drug-related fight, it was the last straw.

Red Hook residents were tired of living in a dangerous place. “You could not walk down the street,” says one resident of the Red Hook Houses as he sits with a friend on a bench in Coffey Park, down the street from the court. The friend adds that it wasn’t just the streets that were dangerous–“The junkies would jump you in the hallway.”

While Red Hook lived under siege, the Midtown Community Court was making waves in the criminal justice world by sentencing low-level offenders to clean the streets of Times Square. Midtown was the debut court experiment for former Victim Services lawyer John Feinblatt and his crew of reformers, who soon branched out into other projects as the Center for Court Innovation. CCI has since risen to national prominence with test projects that promote community-based justice as an alternative to traditional courts.

Born out of frustration with the dead end offered by criminal courts–where the only options for sentencing are hard time or no time–community justice aims to create a forum for helping victims, perpetrators and their communities. Defendants fulfill sentences that contribute to neighborhood life; where appropriate, sentencing also gives restitution to victims and addresses personal problems connected with criminal behavior. Picking up trash, obliterating grafitti and enrolling in drug rehab are all standard items on the sentencing menu.

Red Hook will try criminal cases in much the same manner that Midtown does. Defendants who plead guilty and accept the sentence the DA offers will become justice center clients; those who don’t are rerouted to criminal court. Sentences for petty crimes like vandalism, disorderly conduct and low-level assault will range from community service and social service programs to fines and jail time.

An offender sentenced to community service will also meet with a social service intake worker, who’ll explain what the center offers. But the process isn’t as touchy-feely as it might sound; the justice center is still a court, with the power to impose sentences and punish offenders. “It shouldn’t have to come down to us to make people change their behavior,” says Alex Calabrese, who’ll be the head judge at Red Hook. “[But] we have more persuasive means we can use to make people complete programs.”

In the wake of the Daly killing, Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes and CCI began talking with Red Hook leaders about the possibility of a community court. “I can’t say they wanted a justice center,” says Beatrice Byrd, president of the Red Hook West Tenants Association, of her neighbors. “That was something that was done politically.” A tour of the Midtown Court brought Red Hook’s small circle of community leaders on board.

But CCI’s planners knew that they absolutely needed a deep relationship with the neighborhood. When it was launched, the Midtown Court had drawn fire from Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who believed it was diverting vital resources from public courts. The Legal Aid Society, meanwhile, was concerned that the court’s entrance requirement–that defendants plead guilty–endangered clients’ legal rights.

Keen on avoiding friction, CCI began laying groundwork five years ago. First, it held focus groups with residents, who confirmed CCI’s suspicion that quality-of-life crimes were the neighborhood’s biggest concern. That was just the beginning of the outreach. CCI held community meetings for three years, and organizers worked to sign up Legal Aid, Victims Services, Good Shepherd Services, the Fifth Avenue Committee and an alphabet of city agencies as partners in the project.

Thanks to CCI’s aggressive networking, there’s a consensus in the neighborhood that an opportunity has landed on Visitation Place. Virtually every community group and social service provider in the neighborhood is participating in the project in one way or another. Barbara Ross is talking to CCI about the possibility of the court referring clients to her organization, South Brooklyn Health Services. “We don’t see a lot of adolescents for well-care visits,” Ross says. “This would be the perfect opportunity for us to grab a bunch of young adults.”

Berman is modest about the group’s efforts to cultivate community support. “It was half-planned and half a product of circumstances,” he contends. “The strategic part was figuring out how you could get an early win with the community. We wanted to offer this visible, tangible project. Americorps was our early win.”

Starting in 1995, CCI deployed the Red Hook Public Safety Corps, a squad of about 50 Americorps volunteers. Corps members have started a baseball league, run workshops at schools on domestic violence and fixed broken locks. With CCI they also help run a Youth Court, where teens serving as jurors, lawyers and judges sentence minor offenders to community service. Volunteers keep an eye on kids’ personal needs at P.S. 27 and even answer phones at social service organizations, a selling point for getting the groups on board for the court project.

Berman calls the Public Safety Corps the “shock troops” of the justice center operation. Indeed, divided into Unity, Community and Family teams, and wearing red T-shirts, the PSC displays an image of military efficiency and can-do enthusiasm. While many community members have been happy to see Corps members tilling a community garden and painting over graffiti, the volunteers have also encountered others who believe they’re working for the cops. “You get the feedback that they’re afraid of the red T-shirts,” says 19-year old Tawana Hall.

The risks of injecting a court so deeply into community life became apparent this summer, when a mural painted under CCI’s watch turned into an embarrassment for the court project. Working with a nonprofit public art organization, neighborhood teens and Americorps volunteers began to paint a mural on the outside wall of a supermarket. Their design, which told the story of a young person’s experiences in the justice system, irked some residents, who had not been consulted. They expressed concern about the way it represented their community, which included a hooded kid playing craps on the street, a policeman frisking a suspect and a judge looming over the housing projects. “I think the piece that bothered me the most was the drunk that was lying on the ground,” says Byrd. That was a normal sight in the old days, but no one sees it in Red Hook anymore. “That was kind of going backwards,” she says.

After a community meeting, the project was called off, and the wall was painted over. CCI’s Berman says the episode “was a lesson for us. I think it highlighted the need for good process.” Since the justice center began, CCI planned to set up a Community Advisory Panel to handle residents’ concerns as they came up, but it has yet to materialize. For the time being the court will rely on a Community Board 6 task force to speak for the neighborhood. While consultations with residents will continue, CCI is insisting that in the “community court” equation, the court remains in charge. “We’ve been clear,” says Berman. “Some things are up for debate and some aren’t.”

When the court itself finally opens, the biggest challenge the justice center faces may be finding steady business. It will receive cases from Brooklyn’s 76th and 78th precincts, which besides Red Hook cover largely gentrified Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. By the time housing and family cases are eventually added, CCI expects to see 10,700 cases a year.

But Red Hook isn’t the same place it was five years ago. “We don’t see drug shootings anymore. It’s an area where you don’t have to be afraid to have your car parked on the street,” says Ross. Since last year, crime is down 17 percent, and it’s down 50 percent from 1993. That drop means the justice center may run into the paradoxical problem of not having enough crime. The 76th and 78th precincts reported a combined 2,633 arrests from January 1 to August 22 of this year. Since those numbers include everything from fare-beating to homicide, the actual number of cases eligible for the justice center would be even smaller.

Facing the prospect of a court with few criminals, CCI is now considering drawing some cases from Sunset Park’s 72nd Precinct, with 3,288 collars so far this year. Berman says CCI will examine that decision very carefully. The reason for caution is clear: The more cases that come from neighborhoods other than Red Hook, the less the justice center will be able to maintain the organic connection it seeks between criminals, the court, and the community.

John Jay College professor Todd Clear, who studies the relationships betweeen urban neighborhoods and criminal justice, thinks the court may be worth the potential headaches. He lauds the justice center for “having the elements of taking Red Hook seriously.” Like CCI, Clear has been advancing the idea of focusing resources in particular high-crime neighborhoods, and he provides compelling reasons to do so. He found that in some parts of the city, one in eight men are sent to jail in each year, and some blocks see $3 million spent annually on enforcement and corrections–all of it outside the neighborhood. By making sure that the criminal justice system gives resources back to a community in addition to taking criminals away, CCI’s efforts aim to correct that imbalance in Red Hook.

But Clear is also concerned that the very premise of the court–that a neighborhood with an all-encompassing crime problem needs a solution that’s just as comprehensive–assumes that high-crime communities and lower-crime areas need different mechanisms for criminal justice. Clear wonders, “Is it really the case that we want to have different sorts of meanings of justice in different sorts of communities in New York?”

Red Hook will find out soon enough. Once the justice center is gavelled into session, the court and community residents will learn how close they can get to one another without getting burned. “We’re still very much in learning mode,” admits CCI executive director Feinblatt. “The work ahead of us is to ask where are the tensions, where are the fault lines? What are the risks as you try to give an alternative to the adversarial system? What are the limits of community involvement?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *