A Court of Second Chances ; in a Tough New York Neighborhood, Justice Means More Than a Quick Ticket to Jail

By Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Court of Second Chances ; in a Tough New York Neighborhood, Justice Means More Than a Quick Ticket to Jail


Seth Stern writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For two years, Alex Calabrese has presided over a courtroom in one of Brooklyn's toughest neighborhoods. But today, sitting in the former parochial school that houses the Red Hook Community Justice Center, he sounds more like a small-town principal than a New York City judge.

"Are you studying as much as you used to?" Judge Calabrese asks the dark-haired 16-year-old before him. The teen, accused of marijuana possession, stares at his feet.

The judge already knows the answer. He reads the youth's report card, line by line, to drive his point home: poor work habits, excessive absences, B's turned to F's.

"All we're asking you is to do well in school," Calabrese says.

If the boy can stay out of trouble with the law, and in the classroom, Calabrese tells him, he'll drop all charges.

Justice is dispensed differently at this courthouse, planted two years ago in an isolated neighborhood wedged between a highway and New York Harbor.

Most "downtown" urban courts function like factories, more concerned about quickly locking up felons than fixing a community's underlying problems. But at Red Hook, Calabrese is more likely to sentence defendants to drug treatment or community service than jail time. There is mediation for squabbling neighbors, and a youth court where kids serve as judge and jury (see story).

And when Calabrese - the only judge here - is not lecturing defendants in the courtroom, he might be watching Little League games coached by court staff or mixing it up with parents at community meetings. It makes for a long week, but Calabrese sayshe sought such involvement when he came to Red Hook after two decades in New York's centralized criminal court.

To get a community's residents to trust and participate in the judicial system, he says, "you have to go out and treat them with respect."

Changing perceptions of the system was as important to this court's creators as changing the nature of punishment. That's where the Little League comes in. That's why there is Monday afternoon model building and the club dedicated to fixing things in the neighborhood park.

Whether the notion of justice that's compassionate rather than merely blind has succeeded may become clearer this fall when Columbia University researchers release an exhaustive study of the court's first two years.

For now, Calabrese points to evidence such as the rising number of teens completing high school equivalency diplomas and the number of defendants completing drug treatment.

Studies of similar programs show they've reduced street crimes such as prostitution. They also show something else: Community courts cost more.

Perhaps that is why nationally, their growth has slowed since the concept's debut a decade ago in Manhattan's Times Square.

In New York State, the commitment to justice that intervenes as well as punishes remains high.

"We've shown that community justice works," says Jonathan Lippman, New York state's chief administrative judge. The state opened its fifth such court this year in Harlem.

Community justice came to Red Hook after gang crossfire killed local elementary school principal Patrick Daly in 1992. Mr. Daly had gone to look for a truant student in the sprawling housing project where 65 percent of Red Hook's residents live.

After his death, Brooklyn's top judges and prosecutors began thinking about how to reduce the area's drug crimes. Calabrese, then a Brooklyn criminal court judge growing frustrated with repeatedly sentencing the same drug users to short stretches in jail, signed up to implement the new approach they proposed.

At Red Hook, Calabrese can sentence drug abusers to clean off graffiti instead of going to jail. He can steer them toward high school equivalency classes, job training, and drug counseling. "Downtown, you feel like you're an artist with only two colors," he says. …

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