A Little Piece of Red Hook

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.


Anonymous said…

You identified a critical challenge for BCS, community engagement. Community court approaches inside traditional courts are the next evolution in the model. However, implementing an effective community engagement strategy inside a main courthouse must be daunting.

The difference in case volume between BCS and Red Hook is stark, but more importantly, the culture of traditional courts can also be a barrier. In Red Hook, the physical locating of a court in the community forces system players to deal with the community. Being exposed to the community on a day to day basis outside of the courtroom setting, for example just going to lunch or being part of a volunteer activity like the youth baseball league, changes the perceptions of court players about their relationship to the community. This process, I believe, challenges assumptions and stereotypes on the part of court staff and the community. By creating a deeper level of awareness between the court players and community members trust is strengthened and possibilities realized.

The attitude of service and desire to build trust with the community are particularly evident in Red Hook. These flow from the leadership skills that I feel have evolved in Red Hook; skills such as emphatic listening, modeling, ability to work with diverse persons, and willingness to teach others. I am not sure there was ever any intentional process to encourage these skills in Red Hook’s staff. Instead, I think these skills emerged from the deep desires of human beings when they are freed from the day-to-day bureaucratic and oppressive structures that can evolve in “systems.” When our own humanity is affirmed in our work; when we are freed up to experience defendants, community members and colleagues as more than just challenges, but as resources; then the way we work evolves, we get better at what we do, and more willing to share what we know. I suspect that in Red Hook this is a part of the story.

From what I have seen in BCS your team is changing the way people work together. I think this will be important as you also work to encourage system players to join you in engaging the community.
mfs said…
I love that you guys have started a blog. Keep up the good work!
simon nickless said…
Hi there,

I am a police officer from Nottinghamshire in England and visited New York recently to research problem solving justice. We visited a number of courts, including Red Hook.

We are at the stage of preparing an options paper to identify an area and possible variables on a court. There are two issues though in cost and time that seem to be constraining the work but we will find a solution.

Will keep you updated.

Best wishes,
Lou Takacs, Baltimore said…
My visit to Red Hook came only six weeks after being named to my position as Public Safety Programs Coordinator--I had been told about Red Hook as an example of community justice, as well as being an innovative approach to criminal problem-solving, and potentially a pre-emptive tool against more serious crime.

While at Red Hook, I was able to see the collaborative process involved among the agencies, who were working TOGETHER in sharing information, and not 'stovepiping' information which was pertinent to a 'greater than X' likelihood of success in any given case.

I was moved enough to continue this tack in my public safety role, and currently take part in the Community Justice Task Force in Baltimore City--with two segments, 'In the Court', and 'In the Community', workgroups designed to design both extra-judicial problemsolving techniques, while also developing community based institutions/services which would be needed to implement a problem-solving court...there are already 'drug' courts, 'mental health' courts, 'domestic violence' courts, 'early resolution' courts--but coordination of these, with community services to augment the needs of individual cases, is badly needed.

There IS judicial leadership for this type of change, but getting to the law enforcement and community-based ends of this is critical for success--and the everpresent question, where do the dollars come from?...

Lou Takacs
Public Safety Coordinator
Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council
904 Washington Boulevard
Baltimore, MD 21230
fax 410-385-0243