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Justice Center a Success, But Budget Cuts Loom

Desiree Pardo strolled into the courtroom six months after she was arrested for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine with a reason to be happy. She had struggled with drug addiction for 17 years, but this morning she had tested negative for all substances. Three large windows let sunlight illuminate the clean white walls of the small courtroom. Pardo sat in the second row of polished wooden benches and maneuvered to get a good view of the judge. “This man is a good man,” she said. “He gave me a chance.”

The 38-year-old Pardo had been attending a court-monitored drug-counseling program five days a week in the same building as the court.

Her success story is one of many at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was developed in response to high crime rates and soaring unemployment in the isolated Brooklyn neighborhood in the 1980s and 90s. The center housed the first multi-jurisdictional court in the nation; a single judge, Alex M. Calabrese, hears criminal, civil, and family matters. Because it is a problem-solving court, Judge Calabrese has a variety of sentencing tools at his disposal aside from jail time—including on-site social services and programs. Sentences often incorporate substance abuse treatment, counseling, and education. In addition, many offenders must perform community service as a means of reparation to the community that was harmed by their actions.

Now with the downturn in the economy affecting the state’s budget, the center has begun to feel the squeeze. Court officers lost overtime pay a few months ago and, as a result, the building is now open fewer hours during the day. The center can’t have programs when the building is not open, said the center’s project director, James Brodick. For now at least, programs will not be affected by budget cuts, but the future is less certain.

When the fiscal year ends in the spring, Brodick will have to reassess where the center’s budget stands. While he is thinking about back-up plans in case of a shortfall, he maintains that protecting programs is the priority. 

“If they cut into drug treatment and mental health services, that would be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Judge Calabrese. “Sure, you save money upfront. But certainly long term, you are creating more problems than the value of what you are saving.”

Eight years after its launch, it is hard to quantify whether or not the center has directly caused a reduction in crime in Red Hook because crime has decreased citywide. But the anecdotal evidence—stories like Pardo’s—indicates that the center has been a success in many ways. The center has served as a model for community justice internationally, inspiring community courts in England, Australia, and Canada. Closer to home, it has helped to change the perception of the neighborhood.

“When I first came out here 12 years ago, you couldn’t get a taxi to take you to Red Hook,” said Brodick. “And now you have water taxis leaving Red Hook. There were no businesses, and now you have Fairway and Ikea. Businesses are opening and people feel safer.”

Since 2000, when the center opened, the percentage of residents who say they are afraid to go to the parks or the subway dropped to 33 percent from 77 percent, according to a 2005 report from the Center for Court Innovation, the non-profit research arm of the state court system that helped plan the justice center. In addition, neighborhood support for the center increased to 78 percent from 57 percent a few years earlier and public trust of the court system more than doubled.

Davis, 57, grew up in Red Hook in the 1950s and ’60s, and later watched the neighborhood suffer through the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. After working in the court system in Manhattan for twenty years, he applied for a transfer in 2000 as soon as he heard about a new justice center opening in his childhood neighborhood.

“One of the cool things about this building is that I’ve actually done more than I could have ever envisioned doing,” he said as he rattled the change in his pockets. He now spends most of his time in the neighborhood and has even moved back. He serves on the board of a local organization, Red Hook Rise, and works with its literacy program, Books and Basketball. At the center, he gives tours of the court and its programs to local youth.

“We taught the community how to deal with law enforcement. I believe if you look at the reason Red Hook is coming back, this building would rank way up at the top.”

In 2007, the police commissioner awarded the 76th precinct, which patrols Red Hook, with a unit citation for crime reduction. Officer Vincent Marrone, who has been at the 76th Precinct for 15 years, explained in a phone interview that the justice center has helped foster community partnerships that provide more local accountability and reduce big city bureaucracy.

“It makes life a lot easier for us ’cause we don’t have to bring low-level offenders downtown,” said Marrone. “We know who the person is; the judge is familiar with and keeps track of who they are. The center helps us make sure they get the proper treatment.”

With the justice center, the community and the police working together—Judge Calabrese and others at the justice center often attend local community meetings— Brodick explained that crime prevention is the priority. To that end, the center provides a variety of services to the local community to give people more opportunities, reducing the likelihood that crimes will be committed.

Lifelong Red Hook resident Stephanie Lovett, 39, found a new beginning when she came to the center eight years ago. She had grown up while crime was at an all-time high in the neighborhood. She dropped out of high school just two credits shy of graduation in order to have her first child. More than ten years later, she was pregnant with her third child when the center opened.

She learned you didn’t have to commit a crime to gain access to the programs, so she joined the Public Safety Corps, a branch of the center that pays residents a living wage to do community service. At the same time, she got her GED at the center. Now Lovett is employed full-time as an intake specialist and is often the first face newcomers see.

“The one thing that never changes here is that people always want to help,” she said. “Had it not been for this justice center, I don’t know where I would be at in my life right now.”

Each person who arrives at the justice center—whether by walking in through the main front entrance or being escorted through the back doors by court officers—counts on the same possibility: a second chance with follow-through support. This year’s potential budget cuts threaten to diminish those chances, and thus, the center’s overall positive impact in Red Hook and surrounding neighborhoods.

Back in the courtroom, Pardo—the woman who had been attending a drug-counseling program—faced the judge, this time, completely drug-free. After the judge congratulated Pardo on her progress, he set her next court date for the following month. If she did everything she needed to do, it could be her final adjournment date.

“If they see you doing the right thing, they’ll hold your hand through it,” she said afterward.


Kieran K. Meadows

KIERAN K. MEADOWS blogs at about politics, media and journalism, among other topics.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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