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City of Seattle
Ed Murray, Mayor

SUBJECT: From Brooklyn to Seattle: A Legal Revolution in Progress

5/18/2005  12:00:00 PM
Lorri Cox, 206-615-1606
Ruth Bowman, 206-684-8288
Gary Ireland  (206) 684-8710

From Brooklyn to Seattle: A Legal Revolution in Progress
by Greg Berman

Background Information/Introduction
A documentary on the Red Hook Community Justice Center entitled "Red Hook Justice: A Legal Revolution Grows in Brooklyn" will air nationally May 24 at 10 p.m. EST on PBS (on their Independent Lens program; check local listings for exact time). The independently produced film offers vivid testimony to the dedication of the judge, attorneys, court officers, social workers and others at this "community court" project who go above and beyond the call of duty each day to make a difference in Red Hook. Especially since Seattle has recently launched its own community court initiative, we believe that local readers would be particularly interested in reading the piece (ideally in the couple of days leading up to the televising of the documentary).

The attached op-ed piece introduces the documentary and the concept of community courts, and highlights similar efforts in other jurisdictions. Its author, Greg Berman, is the director of the Center for Court Innovation, the independent non-profit organization that has worked with the court system to develop dozens of problem-solving courts in New York, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The Center also works to promote and support the concept of problem-solving courts nationally and internationally (and assisted Seattle in the planning of our community court project). Mr. Berman has recently co-authored Good Courts, which is being published in early June by The New Press.

For some background information on the Red Hook project, see:,8150,937158,00.html,2763,1288377,00.html

For more information about the Center for Court Innovation, visit:

Finally, for more information about the documentary itself, visit:

Begin Op-Ed
On May 24th, PBS will air a remarkable documentary about a criminal justice experiment in a crime-plagued neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. "Red Hook Justice" is the story of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a neighborhood-based court that is testing a new response to low-level criminal behavior like drug possession, prostitution and vandalism.

Instead of sentencing offenders to short-term jail (or, worse, to nothing at all), the Justice Center combines punishment and help, mandating low-level miscreants to perform community service and receive the kinds of services – drug treatment, job training, mental health counseling – that might, with a little bit of luck, help them avoid coming back to court again.

What does this look like in practice? In "Red Hook Justice," we meet Anthony, a teenager with a propensity for misbehavior who is linked to a dizzying array of services, including job training and life skills classes. We meet Michael, who is busted for marijuana and given a chance to avoid both jail and a criminal record if he successfully completes community service. And we meet Leticia, a drug-addicted former prostitute who attempts to wrestle her drug habit under control with the help of court-ordered drug treatment.

Presiding over the whole enterprise is Judge Alex Calabrese, who ensures accountability by requiring offenders to return to court on a regular basis to report on their compliance with his orders. Calabrese espouses a concept known as "problem-solving justice." Problem-solving justice is the idea that courts should do more than just process cases like widgets in a factory. Rather, they should affirmatively seek to address the problems of defendants, victims and communities. According to Calabrese, "As a judge in a traditional court, I felt like an artist with two colors: in jail or out of jail. At the Justice Center, I have the tools to give people the opportunity to change their lives."

Problem-solving judges like Calabrese recognize that today's criminal courts bear little resemblance to the courts we read about in our grade school civics classes. Spend a few hours watching Court TV or “Law and Order” and you'd think that the typical criminal case is a serious felony involving a hardened criminal, a celebrity or both.

In real life, the typical criminal is a petty offender suffering from addiction, mental illness or homelessness. Moreover, rather than hard-fought trials where prosecutors and defense attorneys go head-to-head, the vast majority of cases in American courts are resolved by plea bargain.

New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye explains the problem this way: "In many of today's cases, the traditional approach yields unsatisfying results. The addict arrested for drug dealing is adjudicated, does time, then goes right back to dealing on the street.

Every legal right is protected, all procedures are followed, yet we aren't making a dent in the underlying problem.

Not good for the parties involved. Not good for the community. Not good for the courts." Put simply, there's not much to recommend about business as usual in American courts.

That's why experiments like the one in Red Hook are so important. The Red Hook project is still in its early stages, but already it has achieved some promising results. Public confidence in justice is up, as are property values. Levels of fear are down along with crime rates. For the first time in more than a generation, Red Hook recently went an entire calendar year without a single homicide. Those interested in the concept of problem solving justice don't have to go to New York to see it in action. Indeed, on the other side of the country, Seattle, Washington., is one of three dozen American cities that are adapting elements of the Red Hook model.

Under the leadership of the Seattle Municipal Court's Presiding Judge Fred Bonner -- working in partnership with City Attorney Tom Carr and Dave Chapman, Director of Associated Counsel for the Accused -- Seattle is currently testing its own community court. While most community courts target all low-level offenders in the area served, the Seattle Community Court is focusing on “chronic public system users,” defendants who repeatedly commit crimes, fail to comply with sanctions, fail to appear for court, and who use jail days when they could be more effectively rehabilitated through alternative strategies. This population creates serious impacts on the quality of life in Seattle’s downtown core. The Seattle Community Court, which just opened its doors in March, already benefits from significant community support. Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) President Kate Joncas and Metropolitan Improvement District Vice President Dave Dillman were instrumental in helping launch the project by providing partial funding. DSA funds were matched by funds from the Seattle City Council.

The Seattle Community Court’s current challenge is to explore funding options for social services -- through grants and increased collaboration with service providers -- to support its pilot program.

The community court movement has even become international. The Blair government in England has gotten into the act, launching a community court of their own in Liverpool.

Will the innovations being tested in Red Hook, Seattle and Liverpool transform the way that all courts work? It is too soon to tell. But these projects do offer a beacon of hope for those of us who care about justice. Coming off an era when the conventional wisdom was that "nothing works," that it is impossible to change the behavior of offenders, this is good news indeed.

Greg Berman is co author of Good Courts: The Case for Problem Solving Justice (The New Press) and the director of the Center for Court Innovation, a think tank that promotes new thinking about how courts can improve public confidence in justice.

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