Straight out of Red Hook: A Community Justice Centre Grows in Liverpool

By Mansky, Adam | Judicature, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Straight out of Red Hook: A Community Justice Centre Grows in Liverpool


Mansky, Adam, Judicature


Over the last two years a small but innovative court experiment called the Red Hook Community justice Center, located in a low-income neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, has attracted the attention of the British Government. Officials ranging from the Home secretary and members of Parliament to the Lord Chief justice and the Attorney General, have all traveled to New York City to see the concept of community justice in action. These leaders, and other high-profile officials, including Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife Cherie Booth, have featured these courts in presentations, conferences, and speeches about the future course of British criminal justice. The culmination of this interest: In july 2003, the British Government announced that it will pilot community justice "centres" of its own, starting with one in the English city of Liverpool.

How and why did Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a reputation for drugs, crime, and disorder, become the most sought-after travel destination for British officials? Here's the story:

British legal system

When you think of the English legal system, what images are evoked? Well, of course, there's tradition. After all, it is the antecedent for the American system-it's a system where lawyers are still divided into barristers and solicitors, and judges and lawyers still wear wigs in the courtroom. Then there's intellectual distinction. The decisions of the great British jurists like Lord Coke are still cited as precedent in American courts today. And all of this adds up to heavy-duty gravitas. In America, you might even find an English legal society in your local bar association, comprised of U.S. lawyers eager to dissect the latest developments in English law. In short, in the U.S. the English legal system tends to be held in extremely high esteem.

But there is a flip side to this grand history and reputation. Where jurists see independence, neutrality, and disinterest, many ordinary British citizens perceive aloofness and a lack of concern for the real issues confronting real people. As currently constructed, the British courts often find it difficult to resolve minor criminal cases in a way that addresses both the public safety concerns of communities and the problems-addiction, mental illness, lack of job skills-presented by low-level offenders.

Do these problems sound familiar? As our court systems resemble each other, so too do our problems, particularly the crisis in confidence expressed by many citizens. These are some of the same charges that have been levied against state courts in the United States. And these are some of the same problems that led the New York State court system, under the guidance of Chief judge judith S. Kaye, to create the community court concept 10 years ago.

Red Hook

In order to understand why the British Government is interested in creating its own community justice centres, it is important first to understand the concept. Launched in june 2000, the Red Hook Community justice Center is the nation's first multi jurisdictional community court. Operating out of a refurbished Catholic school in the heart of an isolated Brooklyn neighborhood dominated by public housing, the justice Center seeks to solve neighborhood problems like drugs, crime, domestic violence, and housing disputes.

At Red Hook, judge Alex Calabrese hears neighborhood cases that under ordinary circumstances in New York would go to three different courts (civil, family and criminal). The goal is to offer a coordinated, rather than piecemeal, approach to people's problems. judge Calabrese has an array of sanctions and services at his disposal, including community restitution projects, on-site job training, drug treatment, and mental health counseling, which are all rigorously monitored to ensure accountability and drive home notions of individual responsibility.

But Red Hook goes far beyond what happens in the courtroom. …

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Straight out of Red Hook: A Community Justice Centre Grows in Liverpool
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