Taking Crisis as a Chance: Innovation, Community Change, and Reforming the Criminal Legal System in Red Hook, Brooklyn

“First things learned are hardest to forget. Traditions pass from one generation to the next. We need to change.”

Straight Out of Brooklyn (1991)

On December 17, 1992, Principal Patrick Daly left Public School 15 in Brooklyn to search for a nine year-old child who had run out of school after getting into a fight with a class-mate. Daly ran into the Central Mall that flows through the East and West Red Hook housing projects. His search ended abruptly. He was caught in the crossfire between rival gangs and shot in the chest. Daly died that night. 

Red Hook in the 1980s and early 1990s was a notoriously violent center for crime, drugs, and poverty in a predominantly African-American and Latino Brooklyn neighborhood. Erika Tapia, a 24 year-old who was born in Red Hook and lives in the housing projects, recalls that “it was not that uncommon to hear gunshots” at the time of Daly’s death. “My parents wouldn’t let me out to play…. No-body wanted to come here.” In 1992-93, 76 people were shot and 36 murdered.  

Red Hook community members demanded change in response to the shooting of Daly—a single event that illuminated a community in crisis. 

Pressure from community members, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, and the introduction of the federal service program AmeriCorps into Red Hook in 1995, all fed into the planning process for what would be-come the Red Hook Community Justice Cen-ter (RHCJC).  

From the outset, community involvement was at the fore. The Center for Court Innovation, a think-tank working to improve the U.S. judi-cial system, spent five years working with the people in Red Hook and AmeriCorps staff—which was fifty percent community mem-bers—in order to assess the needs of the neighborhood before opening the RHCJC in 2000. Community members chose the location for the Center—perhaps they thought it would be just to open the Court in a reno-vated 1908 schoolhouse. The RHCJC is the first multi-jurisdictional community court in the U.S. One judge pre-sides over minor cases involving Family, Criminal, and Civil law, which are usually set-tled in separate courts. The Center provides immediate access to social services by housing 16 different agencies. As a result, the Judge at the RHCJC has more sentencing options available than at other courts, and can offer al-ternatives to incarceration that address indi-vidual and community problems. The Center, which also includes a separate community youth court, is located in Red Hook, a com-munity of about 11,000 people. The Court has jurisdiction over the 72nd, 76th, and 78th police precincts in Brooklyn—a total of close to 210,000 people.

“We are a court first, problem solvers second.” 

Judge Alex M. Calabrese  At a weekly Thursday morning meeting, Judge Alex M. Calabrese sits at the corner of a crowded table, hunched over a coffee. He in-terjects comments, questions, and, with a wide grin, even jokes. There are fourteen people in the room and not everyone can fit at the table, but it is a welcoming atmosphere. Jackie Ro-manoff, who has been with the RHCJC since 2000 and is the Senior Case Manager, goes over a list of 125 cases and provides updates on each one. Romanoff’s job is to track and monitor people enrolled in mandatory drug, domestic violence, parenting, and mental ill-ness treatment programs. All the main staff and public servants at the RHCJC are here, in-cluding social workers, James Brodick, the Project Director, the Supervising Assistant District Attorney, Gerianne Abriano, and Bill Cleary, the public defender that the Legal Aid Society provides.  This Thursday, Brodick puts donuts on the table, to celebrate the work of a staff person who is leaving to work on Bronx Community Solutions, another Center for Court Innova-tion project which implements the principles from RHCJC in the Bronx. Judge Calabrese weaves himself into the conversation with ease and a sharp attentiveness, but is in no way a central or dominant figure at the meeting. Rather, he sets himself on equal terms with those around him, while clearly holding the room’s respect. 

Judge Calabrese is an Acting Supreme Court Justice for the State of New York, and has decades of experience in criminal justice. He is an expert on community justice and lectures at New York University School of Social Work on therapeutic jurisprudence. In 2006, the American Bar Association awarded Judge Calabrese and the RHCJC the Problem-Solver Award, which marked the first time that a court has ever received this honor. At the RHCJC, Judge Calabrese believes that he has the greatest impact on cases involving minor felonies and misdemeanors. “If I solve these cases on the low level”— such as litter-ing, drug use, drinking in public, or public uri-nation—“I won’t have to deal with the big crimes,” he explains. For Captain Michael Kemper, of the 76th Police Precinct, stopping small crimes is a smart approach to crime pre-vention. “People drinking on the corner—to some people, it’s not a big deal. To me, it’s a potential homicide,” Kemper says. 

Judge Calabrese and Brodick support this ap-proach—according to the so-called “broken window theory”—but also argue that arrests for minor offenses can become positive turn-ing points in an individual’s life. Turning a court appearance into a positive experience is a radical transition for communities that often, according to Brodick, associate the criminal legal system with the trauma of high incarcera-tion rates and rampant discrimination in ar-rests, prosecution, and sentencing. “An arrest is a point of crisis,” Brodick asserts, “but it is also a point of opportunity.” Brodick explains the approach of the RHCJC as a combination of crime prevention and real help for individuals. Treatment or community serv-ice is often a more effective solution than a fine because it can re-engage people with the community.  When there is another problem that the small crime exposes, such as alcohol-ism or drug addiction, treatment can address it.  

Furthermore, alternatives to prison are less costly to taxpayers and can be better for the community because there is a sense of restitu-tion. Bryan Stevenson, a professor at the New York University School of Law and an expert on criminal justice, argues that community re-sponses to how the criminal systems punish drug crimes stresses that there be a “response to the community rather than just a long term prison sentence.” Each year, according to a RHCJC fact sheet, the Justice Center contrib-utes approximately 70,000 hours of commu-nity service to Red Hook—that’s about $470,000 worth of labor. Community service requirements and other alternatives to incar-ceration are crucial components of one of Brodick’s central goals, which is to change negative perceptions of the court system by earning legitimacy.  

Brodick explains that the RHCJC directs serv-ices at clients as well as other community members because the Court’s legitimacy and effectiveness depend upon the community. People are more likely to hold each other ac-countable if they believe that the RHCJC is fair and beneficial to the community. “It’s about the community creating its own norms,” he says. Brodick gives the example of “tenant patrols,” which tenants have set up to watch the lobbies of their housing projects and dis-courage crime.  Brodick believes that the RHCJC is successful thus far in winning over community participa-tion in part because of its wide variety of serv-ices, which range from a youth photography program to health screening, job training, and housing assistance. Common to all 16 agencies at the RHCJC is a context-specific approach. “It’s a unique place here because, if you go downtown to Brooklyn, it’s rush, rush, rush, and no one has time to sit down and talk to you. But here, we see if maybe there’s some-thing else going on—maybe there’s drug abuse or something,” Roberto Julbee explains. 

Julbee is from Red Hook and believes that the most important service he can provide to the community is to help people through the tan-gled public housing bureaucracy. He has been on staff at RHCJC since 2000, and currently assists clients to deal with housing-related concerns, such as eviction notices, late rent fines, or poor housing conditions. “I try to explain to tenants their options…it’s your choices…you can take two or three options, but they’re your decisions” Julbee asserts. Sev-enty-five percent of residents in the Red Hook neighborhood of 11,000 live in public hous-ing. Julbee says that community members “have a place here where they can be heard and action can be taken.” 

The RHCJC staff seeks to address community problems, such as drugs, crime, domestic vio-lence, and landlord-tenant disputes, by going beyond punishment towards problem solving. “There’s a reason people are here,” Carlos Rivera, a case manager, says. Treatment and rehabilitation can only be successful with al-ternatives to prison that adapted to the client’s context and include rigorous monitoring. Ro-manoff and Rivera say that they meet with cli-ents at least once a week, and sometimes twice, depending on the treatment and the condition of the client.  “It is important for clients to know that ac-countability is here, and that it’s careful,” Judge Calabrese says. “This is what separates us from downtown [courts].” With a weekly meeting for treatment updates and a host of social service staff members in charge of monitoring clients and updating the Judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney, RHCJC boasts a 71% compliance rate for mandatory community service programs, according to Brodick. In the downtown courts, the compli-ance rate is 50%.

“I became tired, very tired. The first time I stood in front of Calabrese, I was going through withdrawls.”

Juan Rivera

“I’ve never worn a suit in my life. But I’m wearing ‘em now. I feel awkward. Not even when I got married did I have my suit on,” Juan Rivera said with a smile. “I was in my leathers.” Rivera was just finishing a 14-month residential treatment program for drug addicts and was at the Court to give an update to Judge Calabrese. He was proud to attend Court that day.  Rivera grew up in Red Hook and was involved with drugs and gangs for nearly his entire life—33 of his 42 years. He had spent a total of 16 years in the penal system. Now, he is training to become a counselor for adults and youth who are drug users or addicts. “For the first time in my life, I’m drug free,” he said. “I see these streets that I used to run and I feel messed up. So I want to give back to these streets that I took away from.” 

Romanoff sat next to Juan, nearly in tears. Her expression revealed the emotional investment she puts into her work and her clients. Rivera had to overcome not only his history of gang involvement and addiction, but also deep psy-chological trauma. “I realized that my drug abuse was the result of everything I’d been through in life,” Rivera said. “My biggest issue was abandonment, because I was not raised by my parents. I was raised by my grandparents.” Often, people who successfully complete re-habilitation programs have families, too. “I’ve got six kids and ten grandkids,” Rivera said. Rivera and Romanoff explained that people really have to want to change. “It’s not for everybody who needs it. It’s for everybody who wants it,” Rivera said firmly. 

The people at the RHCJC also believe that the courts, in combination with social services, can play a profound role in changing lives. While community courts cannot determine success, they can open up crucial possibilities that are not available through normal criminal courts. Rivera said that he had another case pending in a Manhattan Court at the same time as his case at Red Hook. “They didn’t want to deal with me at all. They wanted to give me [jail] time.” The Court at Red Hook had a different approach, however. “Calabrese made it very simple. I see that he’s genuine and wants to help. I’ve seen other people. They just treat them like cattle,” Rivera ex-plained, referring to how other judges treat de-fendants.  This week, officials from China are visiting the RHCJC to learn from the community court model’s approach to minor crimes. The Cen-ter for Court Innovation has also worked with the Tony Blair’s administration in the United Kingdom to help open a community court in Liverpool, as well as with government repre-sentatives from New Zealand, Canada, Austra-lia, and Ireland. With support from New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, the success of community courts in Harlem, Manhattan, and Red Hook, and the demand by communi-ties for alternatives to expensive and ineffec-tive jail sentences for minor crimes, the Center for Court Innovation hopes to expand their impact with Bronx Community Solutions, which opened in October 2006.  

Brodick believes in the necessity of spreading the resources and services that the community court can provide to regular courts. He doesn’t think that he is changing the nature of the legal system as much as he is helping it to meet its promises. Brodick stresses that much of what the RHCJC staff does is simply “common sense.” Similarly, Romanoff argues, “If common sense follows a straight line, every community should have a community court.” Yet, the overwhelming majority of the U.S. le-gal system does not have the community court model, and there are still unanswered ques-tions about bringing community courts to other neighborhoods or larger municipalities. Stevenson, who also serves as Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, empha-sizes the importance of community involve-ment in the success of community courts. For minorities who face wide disparities in the criminal legal system and would benefit most from community courts, winning over an apa-thetic majority, which does not feel the same pressure, can be a serious barrier. Stevenson notes that the development of community courts arose in response to frustrations over the excesses of the so-called “war on drugs,” particularly amongst minority communities. “The idea was that dealing with minor drug crimes was inefficient and unfair, and that there was a need for a less adversarial proc-ess,” Stevenson says. 

Community courts shift the approach away from the conventional criminal model towards defining and addressing the problems that give rise to an individual’s crime. Abriano, a former social worker who is now the Supervising As-sistant District Attorney and handles most of the prosecutions at RHCJC, sees herself as a “problem-solver.” Abriano says that the downtown courts dole out small prison sen-tences but don’t have the available options that the RHCJC provides. “Here, we take cases seriously,” she says. “It is important to keep the next step in mind for the client,” whether it is their job, punishment, or treat-ment.  At the same time, Judge Calabrese says, “You don’t have to give up the court for the prob-lem-solving.” To the contrary, the two are in-timately related. At the end of the day, the punishment, treatment or community service that Judge Calabrese determines is mandatory, and Abriano’s role is to bring people who have committed crimes to court. 

However, Bill Cleary, the Legal Aid Society public defender, says that the options available at RHCJC, which make it easier to avoid a prison sentence, make contesting illegal arrests or challenging procedural matters less of a priority. “You can’t really tell a guy to fight the charge, because when you do that, you’ll have a bail set and the case will go downtown,” he says. Cleary believes his chances of keeping his client out of jail are better at the RHCJC than other courts. But he still sees problems with what gets people to court in the first place. “It would be nice if everyone would be arrested according to the law, but nobody would be making any overtime,” Cleary says. He esti-mates that up to 70% of arrests by the NYPD are illegal. Stevenson asserts, “A lot of what goes on in these courts shouldn’t be dealt with by the criminal justice system at all—they are social and economic problems.” Stevenson supports the community court model because he sees it as a shift away from the criminal system. He is pessimistic, however, about whether commu-nity courts will spread to Alabama, where he works, and most other communities in the U.S. “People who are victimized by [the criminal system] have no political power,” he says. “It is going to create a huge amount of effort to change this [criminal system].” In Red Hook, the community organized to create change in response to Principal Daly’s death—but this kind of motivation is difficult to muster when the people in crisis lack politi-cal power. “The real solution is to be respond-ing to these problems,” Stevenson argues. Growing up in Red Hook during the 1980s and 1990s, Erika Tapia witnessed how her mother, Alice, could create positive change through projects such as planting and caring for community gardens. Tapia now works at the RHCJC to change youth perceptions of the legal system. She wants youth to get in-volved because they are responsible for the fu-ture of the community. 

Tapia has a four year-old daughter, and is working towards her Master’s degree in Busi-ness Administration at New York University. At 24, she has been involved in various com-munity projects for a decade. When she was younger, drugs and violence were more com-mon. Tapia sees alternatives. “I don’t want this for my kids—you don’t want to get used to crack addicts in your building,” she said. “If you want change, you gotta take what comes your way.”




Red Hook Community Court Hearing (8/2/2007). 

Staff Meeting at RHCJC (8/2/2007). Tour of Red Hook by Erika Tapia (8/3/2007).  Interviews Gerianne Abriano, Supervising Assistant Dis-trict Attorney. RHCJC. (8/2/2007). 

James Brodick, Project Director at the RHCJC. RHCJC. (8/2/2007 and 8/3/2007). 

Alex M. Calabrese, Presiding Judge at the RHCJC. RHCJC. (8/2/2007). 

Bill Cleary, Public Defender, Legal Aid Soci-ety. RHCJC. (8/3/2007). 

Roberto Julbee, RHCJC Housing Project. RHCJC. (8/3/2007).

Captain Michael M. Kemper, NYPD Com-manding Officer 76th Precinct. 76th Police Pre-cinct, Brooklyn. (8/6/2007).

Jackie Romanoff, Senior Case Manager at the RHCJC. RHCJC. (8/3/2007). 

Carlos Rivera, Case Manager at the RHCJC. RHCJC. (8/6/2007). 

Juan Rivera, Client at RHCJC. RHCJC. (8/3/2007).

Bryan A. Stevenson, Professor of Clinical Law, New York University School of Law, Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, Alabama. Via phone interview. (8/7/2007).

Erika Tapia, Community Outreach Coordina-tor. RHCJC. (8/3/2007).


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Website of the Center of Court Innovation, http://www.courtinnovation.org

Website of the Equal Justice Center, Alabama, http://www.eji.org

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