In 1992, Patrick Daly, a principal at an elementary school in Red Hook, was accidentally murdered in a drug-related shoot-out. In the months following his death, Brooklyn D.A. Charles J. Hynes began to speak out publicly about public safety in Red Hook, saying that the neighborhood would be an ideal location for a community court.
In 1994, Greg Berman was hired as the lead planner for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The following are excerpts from his Planning Diary, which he wrote as a record of how he negotiated some of the challenges of early planning, including community needs assessment, fundraising and program design. To read the entire document, click here.
In 1992, Patrick Daly, a principal at an elementary school in Red Hook, was accidentally murdered in a drug-related shoot-out. In the months following his death, Brooklyn D.A. Charles J. Hynes began to speak out publicly about public safety in Red Hook, saying that the neighborhood would be an ideal location for a community court. His remarks started the ball rolling. There were other factors that made Red Hook an attractive site. Most important was the neighborhood’s isolation—it is one of the few communities in New York with easily identifiable borders. In such a well-defined community, it is easier for a demonstration project like a community court to have a concentrated impact. It is also simpler for researchers to measure that impact.
One of the very first things that happened after I accepted the job as planner was a series of focus groups with Red Hook residents. The Brooklyn D.A.’s Office helped put the groups together, bringing in an outside consultant to facilitate the conversations. We held separate discussions with community leaders, social service providers, young people and single moms. Red Hook is small enough—it has less than 11,000 residents—that we were able to get just about all of the major players in the neighborhood to come, as well as reach beneath them to talk directly with their constituents. More than 50 people attended the groups, which were held at the Red Hook Public Library. Participants were asked a series of fairly simple questions: What are the major problems in Red Hook? How might a community court help address them? What should be the court’s priorities? The conversations were extremely lively. I remember that once people started talking it was difficult to get them to stop—several of the groups ran well over their allotted times.
I learned a couple of important things from the focus groups. The first was that despite Red Hook’s reputation for drugs and serious violence, the way that local residents talked about their community was not markedly different from the way that residents of Midtown Manhattan talked about their neighborhood in focus groups held before the creation of the Midtown Community Court. Quality-of-life conditions—graffiti, littering, noise violations, loitering—weighed heavily on the minds of those who participated in the focus groups. I remember one participant saying, "Violations do not receive any priority. ... We need a [better] quality of life. Even the schools are not safe." Another expressed the feelings of many when he said, "The court system has failed us. ... [Offenders] go through revolving doors."
But low-level offending was not the only thing on the minds of the focus group participants. Red Hook residents had problems that took them to Family Court and Civil Court as well as Criminal Court. These included disputes with landlords, small claims cases and domestic violence issues. Several participants lamented the jurisdictional boundaries of New York’s court system. One person said, "You can’t divide a person up. You have to have a comprehensive look at the whole person. The community court could do that." Comments like this one confirmed our initial hunch that a community court in a neighborhood like Red Hook should be multi-jurisdictional, that it should attempt to address the full range of legal issues faced by local residents, not just criminal matters.
Finally, participants in the focus groups urged the court to be as aggressive as possible in providing social services. One recommended that the court look at "the total picture—spousal abuse, victim services, teenagers, mentor programs, mock court, parenting skills." From comments like these, we began to fashion a notion that the court should provide services not just to defendants, as the Midtown Community Court does, but to everyone who is touched by crime in Red Hook—defendants, victims and those in the community who were simply concerned about public safety. It was not long after the focus groups that we decided to call the project a "community justice center" instead of a community court. We thought that "community justice center" better signified our intention to build much more than just a courtroom in Red Hook.