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For Red Hook, Justice Center is Much More than a Court

From the number of people streaming into the Red Hook Community Justice Center last Tuesday afternoon, no one would have guessed that court wasn’t even in session.

In one room, a circle of teens defined what being a good citizen meant to them. Down the hall, a troupe of young actors silently acted out scenes of conflict drawn from their own experiences. In the lobby, area residents and officers gathered before the 76th Precinct Build the Block meeting.

The variety of programs held at the RHCJC grew out of nearly two decades of work to reduce crime and incarceration by addressing community needs. Last month, the center was one of five nonprofits awarded the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s annual Spark Prize and $100,000.   

RHCJC Project Director Amanda Berman says that money will help sustain and expand the center’s many programs, which include social services like job training and GED classes, a Housing Resource Center for tenants of the nearby Red Hook Houses, and youth activities.

“We occupy a unique space as both a community center and a court,” she said. “Historically, that didn’t exist, so we’re trying to model how a court can play an engaging, productive, transformative role in a community. We want the community to feel a sense of ownership here.”

The RHCJC was founded by the Center for Court Innovation in 2000 to serve as a joint family, housing, and criminal court. It is designed to promote procedural justice, or the idea that people are more likely to respect the court process when four key conditions are met: they understand the process, have a voice in it, feel respected, and believe the process is neutral.

The approach is visible in the courtroom, where Judge Alex Calabrese has presided since day one. Last Tuesday, he saw a defendant who was re-arrested on suspicion of drug possession two months after beginning counseling. Although the prosecutor requested bail, Judge Calabrese agreed to release the man with mandatory substance abuse treatment and testing.

He encouraged the man and pointed out that his fianceé had spent all day waiting for him to appear. After his ruling, the judge called the man up to the bench and they spoke for several minutes — something defense attorneys in most courts would never allow.

“Here, they realize that he’s just encouraging them and asking, ‘What’s going to keep you on the right path?’” said Berman. “It’s his chance to connect on a personal level, to shake their hand.”

“It sends a powerful message when people from the community come in and see their neighbors and friends. They feel they can trust this place because the people working here are the people who live next door.”