In Unconventional Courtroom, a Little Respect Goes a Long Way

Brooklyn, N.Y., has one of the most innovative courts in the country -- not just for its approach toward defendants but also for its success in reducing recidivism.
by | March 2017
The Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn (Photos by David Kidd)

It doesn’t feel like a courthouse, or at least not any you’ve ever seen before. At the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, the hallways are wide and welcoming and lined with artful photos of the neighborhood. Defendants’ holding cells are walled in thick glass -- not bars -- and the entire place is bathed in natural light. Instead of imposing dark paneling, the open-plan rooms have crisp white walls and blond wood. In one meeting room, a wall-sized mural painted by teens in the neighborhood shows a lively streetscape at the intersection of “2nd Chance Street” and “Perseverance Road.” Throughout the facility, instructions on signs go out of their way to be polite, even to criminal suspects. “Questions?” reads a placard near a set of metal detectors. “Our court officers are happy to help.”

The unconventional vibe continues once defendants find themselves in front of the judge -- Judge Alex Calabrese, who has served as the public face and the sole judge of this groundbreaking justice center since it opened 17 years ago. His bench sits at eye level with the defendants, rather than looking down on them from above, to better facilitate a dialogue. During proceedings, Calabrese makes sure that defendants understand what’s going on. He talks with them about problems in their lives and how they might address them. He smiles. He asks engaging questions: Have you ever been in treatment for drug addiction? Do you have kids? Are you happy with the shape your life is taking? “We want them to know that we want them to be successful,” Calabrese says. “They’re so used to getting knocked on their head by the court system.”

Some of Calabrese’s interactions with defendants can be almost startlingly polite. If, for example, repeat offenders have never been offered drug rehabilitation services, “I will apologize,” says Calabrese. “That’s just not right. It’s not fair.” After carefully explaining how he reached his rulings, he often ends proceedings with a handshake or a hug. If a defendant has had a particularly dramatic turnaround, the judge may even applaud.

More than a decade and a half after it first opened its doors, the Red Hook Community Justice Center remains one of the most innovative courts in the nation. It’s not just the physical attributes of the building or the avuncular demeanor of the judge, though both of those stand in stark contrast to most other courts. Rather, the Red Hook court was conceived as an entirely new approach to justice, a way to reconnect defendants to their community by providing them the services they need. More than anything else, what sets this court apart is a fundamental idea of respect. Treat defendants with respect, and they’ll respect you -- and the law -- in the future. It’s a radical departure from historical approaches. But what’s truly radical is just how successful the idea has been.

Bright spaces and clear signage make visiting the court a pleasant experience. Services are available to anyone in the community.

Community courts, which focus on problem-solving rather than just meting out punishments, are not a new concept. There are dozens throughout the world, many of them in the New York area. Red Hook, which has been in operation since 2000, wasn’t even the first community court in New York City; one opened in Times Square in 1993. Because they often send offenders to drug rehabilitation and other jail-diversion programs -- Calabrese’s sentences are more likely to involve cleaning graffiti or completing drug treatment than going to jail or paying a fine -- community courts reduce the amount of time defendants spend in jail. They also reduce recidivism. Both are primary objectives of criminal justice reform efforts around the country.

But other community courts tend to focus on a narrow range of cases: homelessness, say, or drug dealing or human trafficking. Red Hook was designed to be different. It was the United States’ first multijurisdictional community court, meaning it hears everything from landlord disputes to drug arrests and other criminal offenses, including juvenile cases.

Planning for the court and the services it would provide began in the mid-’90s. A nonprofit group called the Center for Court Innovation offered to work with the New York state judicial branch to design how the court would function. But many of the major decisions came from the community itself. Organizers, for example, took neighborhood leaders on bus trips around the area to scout potential locations for the new court. While other locations provided more administrative benefits, community leaders settled on a vacant building that once housed a Catholic school. Reopening the building for a public purpose instead of private condominiums, they said, would give the neighborhood a source of civic pride.

The justice center opened in 2000 in a former Catholic school.

Something else was clear from the beginning: Red Hook wouldn’t be just a courthouse. On the two floors above Calabrese’s courtroom are social workers, a housing resource center, a GED program, and other counseling and support services. The court hosts community meetings and college fairs and has brought in legal aid lawyers to help residents with civil cases. A youth court trains local teens to act as judge, jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys in real cases referred to it by Calabrese.

Because of all the services it offers, the justice center isn’t just a place people are forced to go on their worst days. It’s a true community resource that people in the neighborhood frequently turn to for support. That, says Adam Mansky, the director of operations for the Center for Court Innovation and one of the early administrators of the Red Hook court, is the “magic ingredient” that has helped reshape the relationship between the community and the justice system. Organizers included a housing court, for example, specifically to handle cases between tenants and the local public housing agency. “We are striving to create a sense of ownership by the community,” Mansky says. “We were very cognizant of the fact that a community like Red Hook” -- a low-income, mostly minority neighborhood -- “could feel extremely skeptical of a government intervention like this, particularly in criminal justice. So from the very beginning we worked assiduously to engage the community, and to show them we weren’t there to criminalize the community but to provide support to the residents.”

The court is an “incredible community resource,” says Jill Eisenhard, the founder and executive director of the Red Hook Initiative, a nonprofit focused on youth. Practically, it saves people a lot of time and money to take care of small legal matters in the neighborhood, rather than requiring people to go to courthouses farther away. But the court has been especially valuable during times of crisis, she says. Last summer, as violence rose in the area, many youth were afraid and angry about how they were treated by police. Eisenhard’s organization was able to meet with Calabrese and other court staff to relay their concerns. After one shooting, Calabrese went to the public housing development to check in. “That’s genuine,” she says. “People know who he is. He’s not afraid to cross a line outside of the building and come and ask us what’s happening and if we’re OK.”

"The court of second chances" is Judge Calabrese's nick-name for the Justice Center, an idea echoed in a meeting room mural that was painted by local young artists.

The Red Hook neighborhood is a funny little pocket of western Brooklyn, a corner of land that juts into New York Harbor but is choked off from the rest of Brooklyn by an elevated highway. The nearest subway stop is a mile away. For years, being out of the way meant Red Hook was largely forgotten. It’s home to one of the biggest public housing developments in New York, with nearly 2,900 apartments. In the 1970s and 1980s the city allowed those homes to fall into disrepair. The neighborhood further declined as its docks lost business to New Jersey. Drug dealers moved in. By 1988, Life magazine declared Red Hook “the crack capital of America.”

Things hit rock bottom four years later, when a popular elementary school principal was shot and killed while searching for a fourth-grade boy who had left school. The principal had evidently been caught in the crossfire in a fight over drug territory. The slaying drew national attention to Red Hook. Within a few years, the idea to start a community court there began to take hold.

As plans for the court took shape, organizers reached out to Calabrese, who, as a Brooklyn criminal court judge, assigned social workers to cases with drug treatment, mental health or school attendance issues. When he was assigned to the new project in Red Hook, Calabrese made a point to meet with people who lived in the neighborhood. He went to community meetings and visited housing developments. “This is a community where there was so much gunfire on the streets, you’d put your kids to bed in the bathtub, because that was the safest place for them,” he says. “This is the way they’re living, and no judge had been out there. There was a complete disconnect between court and community.”

Judge Calabrese hears cases that would typically go to three different courts -- civil, juvenile and criminal.

Red Hook today is a far different place from when Calabrese started. There’s a gleaming 40,000-square-foot Tesla showroom just blocks from the courthouse. The city’s only IKEA is nearby. Bike-share stations have sprouted up in front of public housing. Part of that has to do with the same gentrifying forces that have changed much of the rest of Brooklyn in the past 15 years.

But supporters say the court has helped too. Arrest rates in the police precincts served by Red Hook dropped almost immediately after the court opened in 2000 and have largely stayed there since. A 2013 evaluation by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) found that adult defendants who went through Red Hook had a 10 percent lower recidivism rate than those who went through traditional courts. The effect was even more pronounced for juveniles, who saw a 20 percent decrease compared to other systems.

Meanwhile, Red Hook reduced the number of defendants who were sentenced to jail by 35 percent. In fact, 78 percent of defendants at Red Hook were sentenced to participate in community service like cleaning up parks, or in social services like drug treatment. At Brooklyn’s primary criminal court, by contrast, only 22 percent of offenders received those types of sentences.

Part of the reason for that success rate rests in Red Hook’s basic dedication to treating defendants with dignity. A growing body of research around the notion of “procedural justice,” pioneered by Yale psychology professor Tom Tyler, shows that litigants (including criminal defendants) are more likely to abide by a court’s rulings if they think that the process used to reach those rulings is fair -- even when the ruling isn’t in their favor. That certainly seems to be the case at Red Hook. “When offenders were asked to describe in their own words how their experiences at the Justice Center differed from their experiences in other courts,” the 2013 NCSC study said, “the word they most frequently chose was ‘respectful.’”

Red Hook has become an international model, inspiring similar projects in places from Canada to Israel to Australia. Judges and public officials from across the U.S. and elsewhere have visited to see how they might implement some or all of the ideas back home. But the Red Hook model requires concerted effort and coordination from state lawmakers, the judiciary and the community, which has made it slow to catch on in other states.

For Calabrese, the success of Red Hook rests on that central idea that everyone deserves respect. “It all starts from understanding that everybody who comes through your doors, whether they walk in through the front door or they’re brought in through the back door by the police, they’re a member of your community,” he says. “They are a member of your community before they had a case, while the case is pending and after the case is over with.”