1: How might we re-imagine how our courts work?  

That’s precisely what the Red Hook Community Justice Center, located in Brooklyn, New York, set out to do. “Founded in 2000, in the wake of a crisis, in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and crime, the center wanted to change the relationship between the community and law enforcement,” Priya Parker writes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. “Its founders wondered if it was possible to invent a new kind of justice system that would cure the ailments that a crime revealed instead of just locking up criminals.”

This week, we explore the idea that the way a group is gathered dictates how successful it will be.   

Alex Calabrese is the Judge who presides over the Red Hook experiment. In the traditional justice system, he notes there are only two options: It was either prosecute or dismiss.” A small group of organizers set out to create a better way. They began by asking: “What is the purpose of the justice system we want to see? And what would a court look like if it were built according to that purpose?”

2: Traditional courtrooms are adversarial. Their design stems from its purpose: “surfacing the truth by letting the parties haggle over it.” 

The organizers behind Red Hook were galvanized by a different purpose: “Would it be possible to use a courtroom to get everyone involved in a case—the accused, judges, lawyers, clerks, social workers, community members—to help improve behavior instead of merely punish it?” Priya writes. 

“We take a problem-solving approach to the cases that come before us,” said Amanda Berman, the Justice Center’s project director and a former public defender in the Bronx. “When we’re presented with a case—whether it’s a housing-court case, a criminal court case, a family-court case—the question we are asking at the end of the day is, what is the problem, and how can we work together to come to a solution?”

This new purpose demanded designing an altogether different type of courtroom. “A traditional courtroom, built for surfacing the truth adversarially, was constructed to make the judge seem intimidating,” Priya observes. “It separated the prosecutors from the defense counsel. It featured grim-faced jailers and sympathetic social workers and psychologists. Everyone had their role. Even the décor reinforced the purpose. ‘Traditional courtrooms often utilize dark woods, conveying a message of gravity, judgment, and power,'” Amanda states.

3: Because it had a distinct purpose, Red Hook was created differently. “Set up in an abandoned parochial school in the heart of the neighborhood, the court has windows to let the sun in, light-colored wood, and an unusual judge’s bench,” Priya observes.

“The planners chose to build the bench at eye level so that the judge could have these personal interactions with litigants coming before him, invite them up to the bench, which he loves to do so that people could see that he is not looking down on them, both literally and figuratively,” says Amanda.

Judge Calabrese has jurisdiction over three police precincts that previously sent cases to three different courts—civil court, family court, and criminal court. He personally presides over every case. He begins by getting to know the history and the players. 

“In many cases, a defendant is assigned a social worker, who does a full clinical assessment of the accused to figure out the bigger picture of his or her life,” Priya writes. “This holistic assessment—which can take place even prior to the initial court appearance—includes looking for substance abuse, mental health issues, trauma, domestic violence, and other factors. This assessment is then shared with the Judge, the district attorney, and the defense.”

During the proceedings, the Judge “behaves more like a strict, caring uncle than a traditional judge,” Priya observers. “He takes the time to address each individual personally, often shaking their hand as they approach the bench. He explains their situation to them carefully: ‘The fine print says if you don’t come through, they will come and evict you, and no one wants to see that happen.'”  

“You have the sense that the people here are rooting for defendants and litigants to get their lives in order. It’s not uncommon for Judge Calabrese to praise a defendant who has shown progress. ‘Obviously, this is a good result for you. It’s also a great result for the community, and I’d like to give you a round of applause,’ he might say. And then you see everyone, even police officers, applauding”.

The Judge has more latitude regarding potential interventions. In addition to traditional prison time, he can evaluate each person and, based on both the clinical assessment and his own judgment of the situation, assign community service, drug treatment, mental health services, trauma counseling, and family mediation.

In some instances, he concludes that jail is the only option. “We give them every reasonable chance, plus two. So when I do have to send them to jail, it tends to be for twice as long as they might ordinarily get,” Judge Calabrese told the New York Times.

The overall results have been positive. According to independent evaluators, the Red Hook recidivism rate for adult defendants is 10 percent lower, and it is 20 percent lower for juvenile defendants. And, only one percent of the cases processed by the Justice Center result in jail at arraignment. 

“I have been in the justice system for twenty years,” the Judge commented in a documentary film about Red Hook, “and I finally feel that I have a chance to really get to the problem that causes the person to come in front of me.” 

Priya’s conclusion: “The Justice Center team has been able to do this because they figured out the larger purpose of why they wanted to gather: they wanted to solve the community’s problems together. And they build a proceeding around that.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: Consider a recurring meeting that doesn’t work. How might we redesign the gathering after becoming crystal clear about the meeting’s purpose?

Action: Do it.

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