It was just another site visit at the superstore for problem-solving justice, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
I was there on a shopping mission: to bring something back to the Bronx.
Though I work for the same parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, I wasn’t much different than the hundreds of visitors who made their pilgrimage to Red Hook every year. One of the Center's dozen demonstration projects, Red Hook has hosted thousands of visitors from all over the world since opening its doors in 2000.
They come to learn about the unique relationship the Justice Center has with the surrounding southwest Brooklyn neighborhood, as well as the problem-solving techniques Presiding Judge Alex Calabrese applies to criminal, civil and housing court cases.
Anyone who walks in the doors of the Justice Center quickly learns what a different place it is. Court officers tutor kids after they get out of school. Prosecutors and defense attorneys joke about the relative strengths of the summer youth baseball teams they coach in a local park. Residents attend GED classes and community meetings hosted at the Jusice Center in the evenings.
In contrast to the impersonal environment and cynicism often displayed in large urban courthouses, Red Hook feels like an oasis. For example, the Justice Center was awarded the prestigious Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence for its innovative architectural design.
It's an attitude shared by the staff who work at Red Hook. “I felt like I hit the jackpot when I was transferred here,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Masone told me. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” said Lieutenant Robert Vitucci.
While Red Hook is an inspiring place to visit, it can also feel intimidating. It’s natural for a visitor to walk away wondering, “could I do this?”
That’s where Bronx Community Solutions comes in. Our goal is to take the best parts of demonstration projects like Red Hook and see if they can work in a very different environment – a traditional urban courthouse.
Take the value of collaboration. During my visit, I participated in the weekly “list” meeting – in which the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys and social work staff gather to monitor the progress of defendants mandated to complete a long-term mandate, such as inpatient drug treatment. Over time, court staff get to know clients personally and end up rooting for them to be successful. As ADA Masone put it, “Now I’m looking for opportunities to get better results with defendants.”
During the list meeting, I started to think about ways to adopt the concept to the Bronx. Is it possible, for example, to bring together representatives of the district attorney and defense bar to discuss potential community-based alternatives to incarceration for particular defendants?
The list meeting also helped me understand the importance of some of the less obvious forms of collaboration that I've seen in the Bronx. For example, Steve is an NYPD officer who works in the holding pens where offenders are detained before their arraignment. Several months ago, Steve encouraged a reluctant female defendant to enter an inpatient drug treatment program while she waited to see the judge.
To this day, wherever I see Steve – either in the courthouse or on the street – he still asks about her progress. As Lieutenant Vitucci from Red Hook states, “Most officers do care, I don’t care how busy they are.”
Collaboration is not only evident among the officers in the Bronx. Like Red Hook, prosecutors are concerned with preventing crime, but they realize that jail may not always be the best solution and frequently approach me saying “this guy needs a program.”
The lesson for us is the importance of encouraging court players - such as attorneys, court officers and court clerks - to participate in Bronx Community Solutions. For example, we're thinking of starting a regular pickup basketball game (adapting the idea of Red Hook's summer baseball league) that would include Bronx Community Solutions program graduates as well as people who work in the courts.
Another thing we've learned from Red Hook is how a sense of fairness not only prompts cooperation between court staff, but also a successful outcome for the client. “It feels different here,” one Bronx Community Solutions client told me today as he sat in the intake office and was given a sandwich and juice while being scheduled for his social services.
“Community engagement” was the resounding answer that echoed through Red Hook when I asked for advice on what we should be focusing on in the Bronx.
Red Hook is all about changing perspectives of communities by making them problem-solvers. “Go to their meetings and hear what they have to say” was suggested by James Brodick, the Project Director for the Red Hook Criminal Justice Center. Brodick, Judge Calabrese, court officers and other staff at Red Hook regularly attend community meetings, which sends a powerful message of respect to local residents.
Now the challenge – how can we effectively engage a community with 1.5 million residents? Understanding the importance of community meetings, we have initiated a community advisory board which will be reconvening for the second time next month to identify and target specific problem areas in the community.
It’s intimidating to be compared to our big sister project, but we can learn from Red Hook and take little pieces back to our jurisdictions with us. Cooperation and fairness are immeasurable, but there are clearly pieces of the Red Hook spirit showing in the Bronx.