A court of second chances

In a tough New York neighborhood, justice means more than a quick ticket to jail

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. "Here, I have the whole Crayola box. There are so many tools to bring to a problem."

Although Calabrese will oversee some 16,000 court appearances this year – his court also serves adjacent communities in which about 200,000 people live – he tries to give each defendant some personal acknowledgement. He reminds one defendant caught with 27 Ziplocs of marijuana, that he wore the same shirt with a gang color at his last appearance, and asks if the defendant is a cousin of another repeat offender. "I know the whole family," Calabrese says later.

And many others. Outside court, the Brooklyn native, who lives only 10 minutes away, serves as a goodwill ambassador to a community often wary of law enforcement. When his caseload fell after Sept. 11, he handed out fliers on the neighborhood's main street offering counseling.

His actions reflect the kind of trust-building activities the court's organizers emphasized from the start. Residents helped pick the court's location. When they said it was as important to create jobs as to fight crime, the court hired a platoon of AmeriCorps members from within the community. Called the Public Safety Corps and paid under the federal national-service program, these workers do everything from mediating disputes in high schools to helping domestic-violence victims fill out paperwork. In return, they get on-the-job training, a $9,300 annual stipend, and funds for education.

At first, local kids taunted them as a "snitch corps," believing them to be police spies. Now, PSC member Stephanie Lovett says, residents seek her out for advice. Lovett grew up in Red Hook and joined the safety corps as a stay-at-home mother without a high school diploma. After finishing her two years, she plans to go to college to become a teacher.

"[The PSC] has built more goodwill," says Phaedra Thomas, director of Red Hook programs for the Lower Brooklyn Development Corp., which helps find jobs for its graduates.

If the PSC is one of the court's successes, combating drug addiction remains its greatest challenge. One in 10 people arraigned is referred for drug treatment.

Unlike traditional courts, where addicts must first serve jail time, treatment begins immediately. And someone charged with stealing car radios may wind up in drug treatment as well as those arrested on drug charges.

Calabrese has seen the program work and seen it fail. One defendant, a middle-aged mother, swung between counseling, inpatient rehab, and continued drug abuse after her arrest for possession.

This April, she stood before the judge's bench for a ceremony marking three months drug free.

"Treatment is not easy, treatment is difficult," Calabrese told her as he showed her a picture taken at the time of her arrest. In a small ceremony, he handed her a certificate and joined others in the courtroom in applause.

But three months later the woman, who had promised to continue counseling, had vanished into the community.

"I'm not under any illusions we're going to help them get clean in 90 days," says the court's clinical director, Christina Herman. "My hope is we've gotten people the most clean time they've had in a long time."

Such modest progress is the way Calabrese and other staff judge their success. Where traditional courts measure speed from arrest to arraignment, Calabrese points to the fact that 75 percent of defendants complete 30-day drug treatment or community-service sentences. More alternative sentences means less expensive prison time.

"It's helping the community get stronger," says Jean Bakitko, who arrived at the court in 2000 as a crack addict under arrest. After 17 months of inpatient rehab, he's about to move into a halfway house.

Then there are the intangible benefits. Residents have told PSC interviewers they feel safer and less alienated from the courts. Playing Little League with court officers or being mentored by prosecutors may ensure fewer kids return as adult offenders.

Such involvement, however, is expensive. A study of Manhattan's Midtown Community Court found it cost as much as $150 more per arraignment and that no more than two-thirds of that added cost was offset by benefits such as reduced use of jail space.

Community-justice advocates also question how far they should stray from traditional justice.

"When you branch out that far you are exposing yourself to greater risks," says David Rottman of the National Center for State Courts, who has studied community courts. "There's a danger that the core purposes of a court can get downplayed."

For his part, Judge Lippman is convinced community courts can serve as laboratories for improving the entire court system and helping to improve individual neighborhoods such as Red Hook one person at a time.

Back in his chambers, surrounded by children's books that he gives young visitors, Calabrese says he's never felt more committed to his job dispensing justice. "I know we're succeeding on a day-to-day basis."

A court of peer pressure for these teen defendants

Stones carved with the words "boys" and "girls" adorn the entrance of the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. They're a vestige of the former parochial school the building once housed, but might just as well be welcoming the young people who still are a significant presence inside this unusual center of justice.

Peek in the model courtroom one day and you may witness a teenager facing a jury of his peers. On another day, the room echoes with the laughter of 10-year-olds building model planes. These are just two ways the center tries to reach youths long before they might show up in handcuffs.

Not that the mock court doesn't have real consequences.

Teens serve as jurors, judge, and lawyers in cases such as truancy. Today's "defendant" is a 17-year-old, caught outside school, who first claims he was on the way to a doctor's appointment and then acknowledges he didn't have permission to leave.

Wearing a baggy denim shirt and baggy pants, he sits beside the teenage judge as the jurors pepper him with questions.

"What would you do differently to avoid the situation?" one asks.

"Stay in school," he says softly.

"What's your goal?" another asks.

"Go to college and to be a marine biologist," he replies.

The jury needs 10 minutes to deliver its verdict: The teen must attend a life-mapping workshop to define his goals.

Often peer pressure is more effective than a judge's warnings, says court staffer Robert Feldstein.

"If it's another kid from the [housing projects]," he says, "they can't turn off in the same way."

Those dispensing justice get lessons, too. Before serving six-month terms of office, they learn about the law, and acquire skills such as public speaking.

"We can help people and prevent them from going on the wrong path," says 15-year-old Leland Mack, a youth-court member. "It's an early turning point for them."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.