While obstacles shouldn't be minimized, they can be overcome if all parties have a commitment to the process and share an understanding of goals and principles. The experiences of the Midtown Community Court, Red Hook Community Justice Center, and Harlem Community Justice Center suggest a number of practical strategies that can assist in the development of any community court project.
Early Planning For Community Involvement
Before launching the Court, organizers met with scores of block associations, business groups, local political leaders and police officers. These early meetings made it possible for Court planners to identify stakeholders, define existing quality-of-life problems in the neighborhood and articulate specific goals.
From these early meetings, organizers built a corps of supporters willing to donate resources including community service supervision, social service staff time and supplies like paint and plantings. The early outreach also made it possible to recruit the Court's community advisory board, which helps identify crime patterns in the neighborhood and potential community service projects while providing feedback on the Court's relationship with the neighborhood.
Understanding Victim Concerns
Victims expect a lot from courts. They want to see justice done, but what this means depends upon the individual victim. For some, "justice" may mean having their pain acknowledged by the offender, the court system or the community. Others may want courts to rehabilitate the offender and make a concentrated effort to improve the neighborhood conditions that lead to crime. Still others may want offenders to express remorse and take responsibility for the harm they have caused. And some victims will want all of these things. Community court planners will want to make special efforts to understand victim issues. In so doing, they can insure that the community court provides constructive channels for victim involvement and that it offers victims both information and services.
Identifying Key Political and Financial Stakeholders
A community court project won't get very far without enthusiastic support at the highest levels of both the executive and judicial branches of state and local government. The court's planners can expect to invest significant time and energy explaining the idea and its merits to the governor's office and leaders of the state court system, to the mayor's office, to the local district attorney and the head of the public defenders' office, as well as to judges and the local bar association.
Fundraising efforts for the court should take advantage of its capacity to make a visible difference in community life, appealing to local businesses and non-profit groups who stand to benefit directly. Foundations might also welcome the opportunity to help a promising program likely to demonstrate the value of innovation.
In addition, community courts are capable of attracting a new audience of potential funders: those interested in economic development. After all, meaningful and lasting economic development rarely takes place in areas where residents, merchants and employees fear for their safety. By addressing neighborhood blight, improving public safety and providing social services, a community court can be a valuable addition to economic development efforts. Businesses, government agencies and foundations with a stake in neighborhood economic development can be a crucial constituency for community court planners.
Communities won't be comfortable with community service, and judges and prosecutors won't utilize it, without some attention to risk assessment. Common sense dictates that violent felony offenders are probably not good candidates for community service. At the Midtown Community Court, only misdemeanor offenders are sentenced to community service. Work projects are classified as high, medium or low supervision. Each offender is matched to the appropriate level of supervision based on a review of his or her criminal history, background and crime of arrest. Offenders with more extensive criminal histories and those considered less likely to complete their sentences are assigned to projects that take place in the courthouse (building maintenance, staffing a bulk mailing operation); those considered lesser risks are assigned to more visible outdoor projects (cleaning graffiti, painting fire hydrants and streetlights).
A community court's social service program necessarily involves more than placements in long-term drug treatment. Since many criminal court defendants are low-level offenders who face little or no jail time, the court must set up punishments that are proportional to the defendant's record and crime. The Midtown Community Court created an array of short-term interventions that take place in the courthouse itself. They include:
- A four day treatment readiness group that introduces defendants without serious records to drug treatment and prepares them for long-term help.
- Counseling group sessions for prostitutes; the short course includes basic health screening and a meeting with an outreach counselor who offers support for women who want to escape their pimps and life on the streets.
- Job readiness sessions that put chronically unemployed defendants together with employment counselors who make them aware of job training or placement programs.
While the immediate goals of these short-term interventions are modest, the Court has already seen hundreds of defendants use them as stepping stones toward changing their lives, many of them returning voluntarily for continued counseling after completing their sentences.
Beyond the Courtroom
Many quality-of-life problems in a community are not violations of the law and do not come to the attention of the police or courts. The Midtown Community Court has sought to address these problems in three ways:
First, it established a mediation service to resolve neighborhood disputes—for example, the opening of an adult movie house or the operation of a noisy repair shop—before they escalated to legal battles. In addition to helping the community deal with such problems, the service conveys the Court's commitment to the community and its quality of life.
Second, the Court set up a street outreach unit—staffed by police officers and case workers from the court—to enroll potential clients in court-based social service programs before they get into trouble with the law. Four mornings a week, the outreach teams scour the neighborhood, engaging likely clients—prostitutes, substance abusers, the homeless—in conversation and encouraging them to come in for help voluntarily.
Finally, the Court launched Times Square Ink, an on-the-job training program for ex-offenders who have "graduated" from community service. Participants in the program learn job skills by staffing a copy center that does copying work for local businesses and non-profits. By providing ex-offenders with job training and assisting them in finding jobs, Times Square Ink. seeks to address the related problems of unemployment and crime.
Research and Publicity
Police and community groups lose heart in fighting low-level crime when they lack any reliable way to measure progress. A community court should deploy researchers, compile results, and publicize success.
Besides the traditional work of caseload and sentencing outcome analysis, research staff at the Midtown Community Court study problems raised by neighbors. The Court's researchers monitor patterns of prostitution and drug-dealing, as well as street sanitation. They have developed neighborhood-specific computer software to map arrests, complaints, and other quality-of-life indicators; the mapping helps neighbors and police target resources.
Where the research confirms success, a community court should be ready to make it known. A court can create its own newsletter and Internet web site. It can also promote media coverage to ensure a regular flow of feedback to the community.
A community court necessarily requires a larger, more diverse staff than a traditional courthouse. In addition to clerks and security officers, community courts may need social workers, victim advocates, job developers and managers for community service work projects, along with additional research and public information officers. For example, community outreach—introducing the court to local merchants, community groups and elected officials and managing the court's on-going relationships with its community service partners—may require a full-time ombudsman. A court that installs a computerized data sharing system may need a technician to install the necessary hardware and software and adapt them for the court's particular needs. A mediation service, should the court decide to offer one, would require a staff of its own. The court's need for current information about a defendant's legal and social service status requires a staff of interviewers who are able to compile basic data quickly.
These new staff people need not be court employees, however. At Midtown, planners convinced several social service providers—both non-profit organizations and government agencies—to out-station personnel at the courthouse. The reasoning was simple: service providers should bring resources to where the problem is, rather than vice versa. Everyday, the court has physical custody of dozens of people who are in dire need of services. These are the same people who drug treatment providers, adult education programs and health care providers aim to serve.
The Midtown Community Court also grew to depend on a new party to the legal process: the resource coordinator. His job is to keep track of the range of available sentencing options and help the judge and attorneys match each defendant with the right program. The resource coordinator binds criminal justice and social service professionals together. Sitting in the well of the courtroom, he is integrated into the case processing system. At the same time, he is part of the Court's clinical team, aware of treatment issues and the risks of success and failure. Over time, lawyers and judges have come to rely on the resource coordinator and trust his recommendations.