Community Courts: Combatting crime by changing lives

Judge Alex Calabrese from Red Hook Community Justice Centre recently visited Australia as part of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre’s 10th Anniversary celebrations. ACJI was honoured to host Judge Calabrese’s Public Lecture on how community courts produce better results by using procedural justice, therapeutic jurisprudence and problem-solving principles.

Before the establishment of Red Hook Community Justice Center, the neighbourhood of Red Hook was described as a ‘drug-ridden urban war zone.’ Crime rates were high and traditional courts were having limited success in reducing offending. A new solution was needed to make Red Hook safer for the community.

The Red Hook Community Justice Center (CJC) was established in 2000 to help reduce offending by addressing the underlying problems that cause criminal behaviour. The success of this rehabilitative approach has been confirmed by an independent evaluation which found that the CJC achieves a lower rate of recidivism than traditional courts.

During his ACJI Public Lecture, Judge Calabrese outlined some key differences between traditional court practices and the community court approach.

Alex Calabrese

1. Sentencing

Traditional courts generally impose sentences aiming to punish the offender and deter reoffending. The CJC and other community courts impose sentences that prioritise rehabilitation over punitive considerations.

For example, an offender’s criminal behaviour might be caused by the underlying issue of drug addiction. A traditional sentence such as a monetary fine would not prevent this person from reoffending because it fails to address the cause of their criminal behaviour. However, a sentence from the CJC could require the person to undergo a drug treatment program. This assists them with addressing the problem that led to the offending, and may help them to avoid reoffending in the future. This improves the life of the offender and makes the community safer.

2. Provision of Services

The Reed Hook CJC recognises that community members experience non-legal challenges and issues that increase their risk of criminal behaviour. Examples include substance abuse, family violence, unemployment, homelessness, lack of education and mental health issues.

Considering this, the CJC provides a range of on-site services for all members of the community, whether they are offenders or not. Services they provide include:

  • drug treatment
  • social work
  • counselling
  • housing services
  • education programs, and
  • mediation

These services provide tools for community members to improve their lives and avoid factors that could potentially lead to criminal activity. This approach makes the community safer by preventing criminal activity before it happens. Preventing crime is clearly preferable to dealing with it after an offence has already occurred.

 3. Community engagement

The CJC values its relationship with the community of Red Hook. It builds confidence and trust in the justice system through its community engagement program. The CJC works closely with religious and cultural community leaders to implement programs that serve the needs of the community.

A pertinent example of the CJC’s community engagement program is Red Hook Youth Baseball League. This program is run by volunteer coaches from organisations including the Juvenile Justice Corps, Legal Aid, the District Attorney’s office and the CJC. The program has provided young people with the opportunity to interact with the legal community in a non-threatening environment. Young people may perceive the justice system as an intimidating, complex institution aimed at punishing them and restricting their freedom. By engaging with the community through the Baseball League and other programs, the CJC shows young people that the legal system is there to support them and to make the community safer for everyone.

Judge Calabrese

4. Procedural Justice

It is a priority of the CJC to ensure that offenders feel that they are being treated fairly by the court. This includes ensuring that the defendant feels that:

  • their voice is being heard
  • they are being treated with dignity and respect
  • the court is neutral and unbiased, and
  • they understand what is going on in the courtroom

Judge Calabrese suggested one practical way of implementing procedural justice is by asking for the defendant’s input when scheduling their future court appearances. This can enable the defendant to schedule their court appearances around their other life commitments, such as their employment or parenting responsibilities.

The CJC’s approach is supported by research indicating that when courts implement procedural justice, defendants are more likely to view the justice system as legitimate and authoritative. This increases their likelihood of complying with the law in the future.

Community Courts in Australia

In Victoria, the Collingwood Neighbourhood Justice Centre (NJC) has also achieved impressive results through implementing therapeutic jurisprudence and problem solving principles. According an evaluation by the Australian Institute of Criminology, defendants who engage with the NJC have a lower rate of recidivism compared to those dealt with in other Magistrates’ Courts. This evaluation also found that since the establishment of the NJC, the crime rate in the local area has declined by 31 percent.

Community courts such as Red Hook Community Justice Centre and the Neighbourhood Justice Centre produce positive results for the community by focusing on rehabilitation, providing services and engaging with the community. Ultimately, perhaps the most impressive achievement of community courts is that they make a positive difference to people’s lives through their implementation of procedural justice, therapeutic jurisprudence and problem-solving principles.

You can watch Justice Calabrese’s public lecture here.

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