Theorizing Community Justice through Community Courts

By Fagan, Jeffrey; Malkin, Victoria | Fordham Urban Law Journal, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Theorizing Community Justice through Community Courts

Fagan, Jeffrey, Malkin, Victoria, Fordham Urban Law Journal


Community justice practitioners argue that the justice system has long ignored its biggest clients--citizens and neighborhoods that suffer the everyday consequences of high crime levels. (1) One response from legal elites has been a package of court innovations and new practices known as "community justice," part of a broader appeal to "community" and "partnership" common now in modern discourse on crime control. (2) This concept incorporates several contemporary visions and expressions of justice within the popular and legal literatures: problem-solving courts (such as drug courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts, gun courts, and, of course, juvenile courts); the inclusion of victims and communities in the sanction process; community policing; partnerships between citizens and legal institutions; and alternative models of dispute resolution. (3)

For court reformers, the conceptual ground and animating thought for problem-solving courts is that the system is broken, overloaded, and ineffective. (4) Community justice projects go beyond the problem-solving court model to create legal institutions that bring citizens closer to legal processes. (5) What separates community justice from the recent creation of specialized parts is the prospect of mutual accountability between courts and community, and the importance of local space in defining the types of problems that present themselves for socio-legal solution. (6)

Unlike treatment courts or problem-solving courts, community courts seek to fix problems in the courts by developing legal forums that are unique in three ways. First, these institutions bring citizens and defendants closer in a jurisprudential process that is both therapeutic and accountable. Legal responses to families and individuals with multiple legal problems are coordinated, and ideally, unified. Some community courts are multi-jurisdictional courts that link typically separate court parts into one location and under one administrative umbrella. Second, community justice centers and community courts link service providers to the court and, in turn, to families in a way that is responsive to their perceived needs. It brings the court closer--both physically and administratively--to the social and behavioral origins of the problems that it seeks to address, and it seeks to bring services to bear on these problems under the administrative aegis of the court. Third, these justice centers bring the courts and their service adjuncts into a community with limited access to both public and private services. The physical presence of the court in a community signals that the relationships of citizens and communities to courts differ in meaning, tone, and content. These courts are relatively new, and until now, have received neither research attention, nor jurisprudential analysis (7)

This Article reports on research on a community court that is part of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York. (8) Red Hook is a neighborhood in Brooklyn with a long and rich history of both fortune and misfortune. (9) The neighborhood today is an area in transition, challenged by social deficits such as crime and drugs. (10) Red Hook also is a neighborhood with weak services and economic institutions, which are further strained by competing claims for primacy and attention. (11) Furthermore, Red Hook's physical location isolates it socially from other parts of Brooklyn and New York City. (12)

One of the recurring crises in Red Hook, and many socially and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, is the low rating by citizens of the legitimacy of law and legal institutions. (13) Problems in both distributive and procedural justice, plus the failure of courts and other government programs to provide public safety and material well-being, have created a breach between citizens and government that is reflected in citizens' reactions to legal institutions. …

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