"The theme that runs through every part of Midtown's story is that it has always put compassion for the people and community it serves at the forefront."
A speech from New York Chief Judge Rowan D. Wilson on the 30th anniversary of our Midtown Community Justice Center (formerly Midtown Community Court):
It may be a little embarrassing, but this time of year I rewatch my favorite classic holiday movies—"A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and "Miracle on 34th Street." And those movies all have as their core a couple of fundamental ideas: elevation of the power of belief and recognition of humanity as inherently good and capable of redemption. But only one of those movies—"Miracle on 34th Street"—is a quintessential New York City story. In it, the Santa at the Herald Square Macy's turns out to be the real Santa Claus, a revelation that changes and uplifts hearts and minds across the city.
Sometimes real life is just as uplifting as any holiday movie. Just four blocks north of where we are now is the “Miracle on 54th Street.” It is another story imbued with the belief in the inherent goodness of people and the power of redemption and community.
It began 30 years ago when, under the guidance of the Center for Justice Innovation, disparate groups—the judiciary, public defenders, the district attorney's office, social service providers, foundations, and private businesses—found common ground in their shared belief in the dignity and goodness of humanity, and in the importance of empathy, and came together to establish the institution we're here to celebrate tonight: the Midtown Community Court.
Indeed, there are some other parallels between the Miracles on 34th and 54th Street. Santa was arrested for striking a man with an umbrella, which I assume was a misdemeanor. Santa was sent to Bellevue and determined to be delusional. Santa was ultimately cleared in the trial, in part through the testimony of the DA's young son, who firmly believed in Santa. And one of the adult protagonists got her Christmas wish of a home.
Those issues—minor assaults, mental health issues, people in need of housing—are the bread and butter of the Midtown Community Court, which, like Santa's acquittal, could not have occurred without the active support of the Manhattan District Attorney's office. In that regard, I want to extend a special thanks to DA Bragg and his Deputy Chief of Public Safety Lauren Curatolo, who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times—both of whom believe in the Midtown Community Court even more than young children believe in Santa.
The first court of its kind in the nation, the Midtown Community Court was founded on a simple, powerful premise: a criminal case could be an opportunity to put people on the road to obtaining the support they desperately need, instead of incarcerating them at great public expense and with poor outcomes for them and for the public at large.
That idea may seem commonsense now, but it was downright radical 30 years ago. As reported by the press at its opening, the court—which then was open only to those who pleaded guilty to certain low-level misdemeanors—ordered sentences that were not jail time, but service in the community where the offense was committed: from sweeping streets to painting, to folding clothes at the Salvation Army, or working in soup kitchens. And for those defendants with drug or alcohol problems, or other problems such as no housing, there was on-site and immediate professional counseling along with treatment referrals.
Over the intervening decades, Midtown stayed true to its reimagining of judicial response to low-level offenses. But the breadth, depth, and reach of its work has grown far beyond the original model. Nowadays, guilty pleas are not required. The focus is on treatment and building support for persons in need. The court's efforts are individualized for each person, and restorative for both that person and the broader community. Midtown now serves some of our city's most vulnerable people outside the courtroom as well. For instance, through Project Reset, Midtown offers pre-arraignment diversion opportunities for certain arrested individuals. Those who complete Project Reset may avoid standard case processing and criminal conviction.
Another example is the Community First program launched in 2021, in partnership with other local organizations. The Community First program sends community navigators into the community with socks, clothing, PPE, blankets, and food. The goal? Building trusting relationships with people in and around Times Square to connect them with mental health services, help in housing, and medical treatment.
Even beyond formal programming, the court maintains an open door policy for all former participants; and as the Midtown staff will tell you with great and well-deserved pride, many former participants do come back to continue with Midtown services even after their court case is closed and they have no threatened legal actions pending. In Midtown, they found a support network in which they can participate. The theme that runs through every part of Midtown’s story is that it has always put compassion for the people and community it serves at the forefront.
Over the past couple of months, I've twice spent time seeing that compassion firsthand when I observed the Midtown Community Court at work. I watched as Judge Wang took painstaking care to welcome with a smile each person who appeared before him, to pronounce each person's name correctly, and to ensure that each person understood how his or her case was progressing. He also made it clear to each person that they were voluntarily there and could choose to go to the ordinary criminal court if they wanted. No one did.
I watched Midtown’s social workers—including Jess Bendit, Mel Hodor, Melissa Rueda, and Shiny Park—stand beside their clients and, with great warmth, update the court as to the hard work their clients had engaged in since their court date: everything from completing the individualized assessments with Midtown, to completing some or all of their required sessions, to finding an apartment. I watched as Michael Baldwin of Legal Aid—who was the attorney for most of the people before the court on the days that I was there—counseled his clients, advised the court of their status, and caringly explained when a client wasn't present. I watched as Assistant District Attorney Nicole Perry warmly responded to the progress and successes of each person before the court, and genuinely smiled as she approved the dismissal of numerous cases in the furtherance of justice. I watched other staff, like Meshawn Battle, circulate through the courtroom and ensure that those waiting for their appearances were comfortable and informed. She actually left our meeting upstairs early and said, "I've got a courtroom to run."
Several times over the course of the day, I watched the entire courtroom burst into applause—just like you did now—but for a much greater reason. When Judge Wang announced that a person had completed the prescribed program of care, he came down from the bench, shook that person's hand, and read aloud a personalized graduation certificate as the case was dismissed.
And most importantly, I saw the faces and the reactions of the people who came before the court. There was no terror, no anger, no animosity. Instead, the reactions ranged from incredulity to gratitude to joy—all mixed together sometimes—that the result of an arrest could be genuine care to understand and to help. One man who was fully engaged in the services provided for him had been arrested for criminal possession of a weapon, because he displayed a kitchen knife at a group of officers saying, "Please arrest me. I need help." As the officers approached him, he dropped the knife to the ground. Ask yourselves how his case would've been handled if the Midtown Community Court did not exist.
The Midtown Community Court stands as a truly revolutionary model of justice, one that we can and should replicate elsewhere. Midtown demonstrates that when we select the right mix of batters for a specialty court, everyone is better off. Defendants get the services they need, lead better lives, and are less likely to be involved in antisocial behaviors again. The community becomes safer, and community members have more faith in the court system. Cases in Midtown move with great rapidity: on average, cases end in 35 days. And the state spends fewer resources incarcerating those who should not be locked up in the first place.
To put it briefly, Midtown makes our justice system stronger, faster, and more effective. Midtown is living proof that when we put people at the center of our work, the results that follow are—in a holiday word—miraculous. And unlike those holiday movies, Midtown Community Court is here to uplift all of us, all year round. Thank you all very much.