'Transform', a mural in Red Hook's Youth Justice Programs room
Courtesy of Center for Court Innovation | 'Transform', a mural in Red Hook's Youth Justice Programs room

A visit to Red Hook Community Justice Center

Carmen D’Cruz

A few weeks ago I got the chance to visit the Red Hook Community Justice Center, America’s first multi-jurisdictional community court. By solving neighbourhood problems using a range of sanctions and services (including community restitution projects and mental health treatment), the court has been  credited with helping Red Hook shed its reputation as the ‘crack capital of America’ and one of the ‘worst’ neighbourhoods in the US. It has gone further still, building a real sense of community among residents and becoming a source of local pride (and of envy further afield).

The court is a firm believer in procedural fairness – the idea that people coming in contact with the justice system should feel they have been treated fairly –  and it shows. One of the first things I noticed was the jargon-busting signs and leaflets to help people make sense of the otherwise impenetrable justice system, bringing life to the ‘understanding’ tenet of procedural fairness.  These signs shouldn’t be unusual but they are.

In fact, during my visit I encountered a series of things that shouldn’t be unusual but are. The way the judge acknowledged defendants’ achievements is another example that struck me. One of the people we saw come before the court had just finished a 16 hour construction shift. Judge Calabrese, who has presided over the court since its inception in 2000, praised him for holding down a job and managing to show up to court after a gruelling day’s work. In any other court, he would likely have been reprimanded for his zealous yawning. Another young man was given a round of applause and a certificate for continuing to test clean of drugs.

Visiting Red Hook is at once exciting and disheartening. It is exciting to see people treated as individuals and not case files, with their progress and motivations recognised and orders tailored to their strengths and needs.  It is disheartening knowing that, despite years of successful operation, the court remains an outlier and not the norm. Red Hook Community Justice Center is exceptional in more ways than one.

Seeing Red Hook as a necessary forerunner – a court ahead of the curve, is perhaps a more productive way of looking at things. The challenge for justice reformers here in the UK is to harness the court’s underlying principles, such as community focus and procedural fairness, and follow in its footsteps.