Community Justice: An International Overview

By Wolf, Robert V. | Judicature, May/June 2008 | Go to article overview

Community Justice: An International Overview


Wolf, Robert V., Judicature


Around the world, many criminal justice practitioners are grappling with some of the same problems: increases in low-level crime; frustration with repeat offenders; overwhelmed police, courts, and prisons; dissatisfaction with an overreliance on incarceration; and eroding public confidence injustice.

Faced with these problems, many jurisdictions are testing new solutions. One of the approaches gaining traction is community justice-the idea that the justice system should be more aggressive in engaging communities and more reflective about its impacts on neighborhoods.

In the U.S., community justice, which started in the 1980s with community policing, has grown from a handful of isolated experiments to a significant movement. The U.S. government has supported the development not only of community policing, but community courts, community prosecution, and an array of community-based corrections initiatives. Today there are over three dozen community courts in operation or planning across the country, and the American Prosecutors Research Institute says that nearly 49 percent of prosecutors' offices practice community prosecution in some form.

Community justice projects in the U.S.-for example, the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Midtown Community Court in New York City, community prosecution initiatives in Portland, Dallas, and Indianapolis, and community policing projects in both large and small cities-have inspired dozens of replications in places as geographically varied as Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

What follows is a look at the underlying principles of community justice-and how countries around the world are turning these principles into concrete programs to reform local justice systems.

Engaging the community

Typically, community justice programs seek to actively engage community stakeholders-local residents, businesses, religious institutions, and others-during both planning and operations. Community courts and community prosecutors have used community surveys to measure public attitudes toward the justice system; established advisory boards to give the public ongoing input into programming; and created volunteer opportunities to give citizens a role in "doing justice." Community courts and community prosecution programs have also strengthened links to their communities by moving from imposing centralized headquarters to smaller-scale neighborhood locations.

In Liverpool, England, policymakers strengthened community links by giving local residents a formal role in the selection of the presiding judge of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre. British Columbia underwent an extensive period of public comment before formulating its community court, which is slated to open later this year in Vancouver. Mock trials in Pretoria, South Africa, give the public a better understanding of how courts work. The community court in Plymouth, England, invites community members to suggest community service (or "unpaid work") projects; to make this easer, the court maintains lists at community centers to which ordinary citizens can add their suggestions. And the Collingwood Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Melbourne, Australia, has relied heavily on community input to establish the initiative's goals and even determine the décor, which includes glass doors at the entrance that have been digitally impressed, at the suggestion of community members, with the images of banksia, an iconic Australian plant. Community members are also responsible for overseeing rotating art exhibits.

Punishment and help

Beyond a commitment to engaging the community, community justice initiatives the world over tend to emphasize alternatives to incarceration, like requiring low-risk offenders to participate in community improvement projects. In Plymouth, England, where citizens are invited to propose cleanup sites, projects have included everything from fixing park fences and repainting schools to helping elderly or disabled residents clean their gardens or repair their homes.

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