Crack Infested Neighborhood to Safe Precient-Red Hook Justice Center-NCJA

Welcome to DC Public Safety-radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

See for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

Radio Program available at

We welcome your comments or suggestions at or at Twitter at

– Audio Begins –

Len Sipes: Hi and welcome to our studios in Downtown, DC. This is DC Public Safety, I’m your host, Len Sipes. We have another program with the National Criminal Justice Association and we have people who are really going to be having a very interesting discussion about community courts. And I think we have three extraordinarily interesting people at our microphones today. We have Commissioner Denise O’Donnell of the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. We have Greg Berman, the Director of the Center For Court Innovation. And we have Judge Alex Calabrese, the Presiding Judge of the Red Hook Community Center. We’re here to discuss community courts. I want to read a little description of the program. Red Hook, once cited as one of the ten most crack infested neighborhoods in the country by Life Magazine, is now home to the safest police precinct in Brooklyn, the subject of a PBS documentary, the Justice Center is being replicated in more than six dozen cities around the world. The Justice Center is the product of a BURN JAG, which is basically the U.S. Department of Justice funded private public partnership that includes the Center for Court Innovation, in the New York State Unified Court System, and the King’s County District Attorney’s Office. And I’ll give you their website, which is www.courtinnovation – c-o-u-r-t-i-n-n-o-v-a-t-i-o-n dot org. And with that long introduction, ladies and gentlemen, we have Commissioner Denise O’Donnell, we have Greg Berman and we have his Honor, Judge Alex Calabrese. And did I pronounce that correct, your Honor?
Alex Calabrese: Cal-ah-braz-ee.
Len Sipes: Cal-ah-braz-ee. I screwed it up every time, didn’t I? All right, Greg, you’re going to start off the program and give me an overview of what we have in terms of the Community Court there at Red Hook.
Greg Berman: Well, sure, Len. And I should say thank you for having us. A number of people that I’ve talked to, when I told them that I was going on this show said that they were big fans of yours. So it’s a pleasure to be here.
Len Sipes: Well, they’d be even bigger fans if I can get the pronunciation of names correctly, but please go ahead. (LAUGHTER)>
Greg Berman: I won’t tell your fan base that you struggled with Alex’s name. So the Red Hook Community Justice Center, really as is all too often in the case of the Criminal Justice system, really grew out of a tragedy. In the early 1990s an elementary school principal in Red Hook Brooklyn was shot dead in broad daylight in his car while looking for a truant student. And he was caught in the crossfire between two rival drug dealers. And it was one of those moments that really kind of shocked the conscious of New York City and landed Red Hook in a neighborhood which is all too often forgotten in New York City. It landed Red Hook on the front pages of numerous magazines and newspapers. And in the aftermath of that tragedy the local DA, Charles Hynes(?), which I think is one of the great DAs that we have in this country, said we need to do two things here. We need to, number one aggressively prosecute the people who committed this act. But that’s not enough. And I give him a lot of credit for vision. If we’re going to attack the problems of Red Hook, and Red Hook, as you said, is a neighborhood that was really struggling in the grips of the drug epidemic and it’s always been kind of a working class and a poor neighborhood, but it really had taken a dramatic turn for the worse in the 1980s. DA Hynes said if we’re going to make lasting change in this neighborhood, it’s no enough, we can’t prosecute our way out of this problem. We need to do something different. And from that kind of seed was born the idea of creating a neighborhood based court that would really try to address local crime, improve the local quality of life and crucially, from my perspective, change the dynamic between the residents of Red Hook, many of whom, as I said, are impoverished. Many of whom are members of minority groups and changed the dynamic between them and the justice system. And I could just recount one story from the early days of planning the project and I had the distinct honor of being the lead planner of the project, when it was first conceived we went around and did door to door interviews with local residents. And we asked them, you know, what was their biggest priorities, what where the problems that were plaguing them. And we said, oh, by the way, tell us what you think about local courts. Twelve percent rated local courts favorably. And, you know, I wasn’t so naive to think that, you know, we were going to get a 100 percent favorability rating for local courts, but 12 percent really just felt, to me, like a kick in the head. You know, courts can’t function without being viewed as legitimate by the citizens they’re designed to serve. And so at the end of the day I think what the Justice Center is trying to do is, yes, address the crime and drug problems in Red Hook, but also at the end of the day bolster public confidence and justice. And I’ve already gone on probably too far, but let me just say two things about how the Justice Center was at least designed to go ahead and do that.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Greg Berman: The first part of the Justice Center is a multifaceted courtroom where one judge, the amazing Alex Calabrese hears cases from criminal court, housing court and family court. And Judge Calabrese, the orientation of that courtroom is what I would call a problem solving orientation. Rather than just processing cases, rather than just trying to move through the calendar to get to the end of the day, Judge Calabrese is trying to use the court case a moment to intervene meaningfully in somebody’s life and try to address the underlying problem, whether it be joblessness, whether it be homelessness, whether it be addiction, whether it be mental illness, that we know hard earned experience often underlies criminal behavior. And so part one of the Justice Center, and Alex can speak to it more eloquently than I can, is this problem solving courtroom. Part two of the Justice Center is using the courthouse as a jumping off point for a range of innovative prevention programs. And those include a peer led youth court. Those include an Ameri-Corp Community Service Program. Those include police/teen theater workshops. They include a unique project which Denise helped us put together, an anti-truancy project. On and on and on we’ve taken the opportunity snap different pieces on to the Red Hook Lego kit to orient the justice system, not just to respond when problems occur, but also try to prevent crime before it occurs.
Len Sipes: But isn’t it interesting in this case, Greg, that a court took the lead. In so many instances, I get a newspaper information from around the country in terms of criminal justice or articles, you very rarely ever see a community court, or court of any kind take the lead in terms of a comprehensive approach involving all members of the criminal justice system. You can see community courts, you could drug courts, you can see mental health courts, but in a lot of cases, I mean, what you’re talking about, what I’m hearing you say is that the community court took the lead in reestablishing a sense of justice for the entire community.
Greg Berman: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And I think that to be fair, a lot of what we tried to do at least in the early conceptualization of this project, we did borrow elements from other disciplines. And we certainly relied on kind of the theory and the nomenclature behind things like community policing, behind problem oriented policing, behind community prosecution and we tried to translate that into the courts. But in some respect the courts are particularly well positioned to play this role. They are viewed notwithstanding the lack of confidence that people express in courts all too often, they are still viewed as a neutral arbiter. And so they have wonderful convening power. And they have the ability to bring to the table not just kind of the traditional justice system actors; the prosecutors, the defense, probation, but our experiences have indicated that courts can actually reach out to non traditional partners and bring in drug treatment providers. And bring in tenant associations. And bring in other community based organizations to essentially co produce justice.
Len Sipes: And I think that’s impressive. I think it’s very impressive indeed. Your Honor, Alex Calabrese. Did I get it right that time?
Alex Calabrese: You did.
Len Sipes: There we go. Now you took the lead in terms of Red Hook? You’ve been there the entire time. You’ve been there recently. Have you – tell me a little bit about your involvement?
Alex Calabrese: Well, the Center for Court Innovation centered up and really worked with the community to even choose the building. And it was an important building for the Red Hook community that they choose. It was a vacant school house that had always been important to the community. And that’s now where we have the Justice Center. And it’s been my privilege to be the Presiding Judge here since April of 2000 when we opened. We, as Greg indicated, we try to solve problems in the courtroom and in the community. And maybe to give you an example of the difference between the justice center approach and maybe the traditional court approach, Len, would be the following. Let’s say you’ve got, you lose your job and you have three kids to feed, or you’ve got a heroin addiction. Okay? Basically you go to your local hardware store, Home Depot or Lowes, you steal a drill, you sell it for $10 dollars on the street so you can eat, or feed your kids, or feed your drug addiction. The traditional court approach is you get arrested, you come in, you’re charged with shoplifting. They look at your record, you either get community service, maybe if it’s the first time, or you get jail time. When you’re done with your offense, whether it was community service or jail time, and you get out and you’re finished with that, you still have three kids to feed or you still have a heroin addition to feed. And then the next thing you do is you go back to the hardware store, steal another drill, and that’s how you end up constantly recycling through the system. Our approach is to look and say, well, wait a second, what brought this person here? And can we solve that underlying problem? Well, if it’s someone who has lost their job, they can maybe pay back the community with community service. And last year we gave over $500,000 dollars worth of free service back to our community. And we can get them training and job placement working with local community groups that do this kind of work. Or if it’s a heroin addiction, and obviously we can get them assessed by social worker professionals that I have onsite, working with local community treatment organizations, monitor them carefully, make sure that they’re doing everything they need to do and only resolve the case when they’re clean for a substantial period of time – again, coming up with a resolution of we really help them to get their lives back on track and not recycle through the system.
Len Sipes: Okay, now I ,
Alex Calabrese: There’s another, there’s a flip side to this, Len, if I may ,
Len Sipes: Please.
Alex Calabrese: The flip side is we take our cases more seriously than the traditional court does, because for us, for example, the maximum cases I have before me are cases with one year in jail, we call them Class A misdemeanors. If you do what you need to do, District Attorney Hynes does understand the value of treatment and often times will actually dismiss the case, so you end up with no criminal record what so ever. But if you don’t do what you need to do and you’re given an opportunity, you’ll face sometimes longer jail time in a community court, you’re not looking at the typical ten days, thirty days of jail. You’re going to face longer jail time here if you don’t take advantage of this opportunity. Now there’s one caveat to that, you have to understand due process comes first and problem solving comes second. And everyone always has an attorney and works with advice of counsel. So we don’t take the problem solving approach unless it’s A) the right kind of case and B) they’ve agreed to do that with their defense counsel. And so if they want to handle a case like a traditional court they can do that. But if they want the problem solved in court and it’s the right kind of case and at any given time, I have about 120 adults and 25 juveniles in treatment, really getting their lives getting back on track. So the bottom line is for those who want their courts to be tough on crime, a community court holds defendants accountable. We don’t just shuffle through the system, we hold them accountable for their behavior. But for those who want justice with compassion, the community court gives people the real opportunity to get their lives back on track. Stop recycling through the court system. And in many of the cases that come through the court system, people deserve a real chance to change their lives before they’re locked up.
Len Sipes: But we have, here’s my issue – we have two people, two types of people who listen to this show or watch our television shows and that is A) the folks in the criminal justice system and we all know what you’re talking about. But for the average person coming in, a Congressional staffer or somebody from Iowa doing a term paper, that’s where I’m struggling with a little bit in terms of conceptualizing all of this. It is, you’ve done, Red Hook has done a variety of things. Brought the entire criminal justice system, the police, corrections, parole and probation, the judiciary, the court system together so that they can look at community problems and renew a sense of justice within that community. And also I would imagine work on crime prevention issues. The second it sounds as if you’re doing is taking lower level offenders and providing alternatives to incarceration. So instead of if a person is urinating in public, if a person is smoking marijuana, if a person is loud and disorderly and the neighbors call the police, what you take is that lower level individual and say I want you to go to drug treatment and I want you to do 500 hours of community service instead of sending you to the local jail for six months. Is that a ballpark , ?
Alex Calabrese: Well, I don’t think that’s accurate because the lower level offender you’re talking about really, the courts should not have the power to send someone to jail for six months for urination. The cases I’m talking about are low level possession of drugs, a couple of glassines of heroin, vials of crack, those kinds of cases. They are Class A misdemeanors, you can go to jail for one year.
Greg Berman: But broadly speaking, Len, I think you’ve ,
Len Sipes: Okay, and this is Greg Berman, right.
Greg Berman: It’s Greg Berman. Broadly speaking you’ve got it. It’s a combination of prevention programs that engage the community in doing justice on the one hand and then number two a courtroom that, you know, with some exceptions, because there are people that do go to jail, is oriented to finding alternatives to incarceration.
Len Sipes: All right.
Denise O’Donnell: It’s Denise O’Donnell.
Len Sipes: Yes, Denise?
Denise O’Donnell: Just to give you my view of the program, because one of our functions at DCJS is to make sure that the BURN money that we have is really given to support innovative programs throughout the state.
Len Sipes: Right.
Denise O’Donnell: And one aspect of this program that I see is so phenomenal and really works is the fact that you do have Judge Calabrese sitting, wearing multiple hats, working with the family in a number of different cases. So he will have, perhaps, a case involving the mom who has a minor drug case. He will at the same time a housing court case involving possibly an eviction of the family. He may have a family court case involving a younger member of the family. So he is able to pull together in a way all of the interfaces this family has with the courts. And provide that the service network that is available through the community justice center can focus on their family instead of them dealing with five or six different programs in the community. The community justice center has so many of those resources located right there in the community. So if Judge Calabrese is sending an offender to a community service program, it’s right there in the building and the people that monitor it are right there in the building and the services are performed right there in the community. And there is a daycare center for somebody who needs their kids to come in and be there while they’re in court. There’s house clinics. So all of those resources are really brought together for the community. My other observation, just from listening, is just the verbiage that is being used by Greg and by the Judge to describe this program. It’s, you know, focusing on what’s important to the community. The community chose the location. I know a few years ago when it was clear that there wasn’t a little league in their community that the community justice center served as the focal point to make sure that that kind of a resource was available in the community. So that is something we rarely see and to have all of those resources working together I think it provides a very rich environment for intervening in the lives of families who come into contact with the court.
Len Sipes: I’d like to remind everybody, ladies and gentlemen, you are listening to DC Public Safety. We’re doing another program with the National Criminal Justice Association. One of the things that they wanted to do was bring attention to exemplary programs. And I think we have one here in terms of the community court there in Red Hook, in the Brooklyn area of New York City. You’re speaking with the people, our guests today are Commissioner Denise O’Donnell from the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. They’re basically the statewide court rating agency and grant funding agency. We have Greg Berman, the Director of the Center for Community, I’m sorry, for Court Innovation. And Judge Alex Calabrese, and he is the Presiding Judge at the Community Court there at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Again, one of the things that impresses me, again, is this write up. One site is one of the ten most crack infested in the country by Life Magazine is now home to the one of the most safest police precinct in Brooklyn. There’s a certain point that we in the criminal justice system, and I’ve spent 40 years in the criminal justice system, we have many victories but at the same time we have many defeats. And this is something we can embrace. This is something we can feel proud of. This is something that you all seem to have found a formula in a tough, tough neighborhood that brings the sense of life and dignity not only to the citizens, but to the criminal justice system.
Alex Calabrese: You know, it absolutely is, Len and you know, there’s two ways you can approach it. You can say and take the compassionate approach in terms of working with families and giving people an opportunity. So you can also take the dollars and sense approach. And so the way that you can do that is, is it more expensive to start up a community court? Absolutely. But what do you get in return? Well, Red Hook is really, it’s like a test tube where you can actually see the difference that it makes. When you get a hold of crime, and when crime drops, you get merchants investing in the community. And so where you had a vacant, abandoned building, we now have a grocery store, Fairway, which employs 250 people. Where we had a toxic abandoned lot, we now have the largest IKEA in the United States. And that employs 660 people. And New York City and New York State are getting sales tax on every sale made at that IKEA. And they’re bringing in a lot of money, that IKEA, that’s for sure. And finally we’re the home port now of the Queen Mary II. And they’re not docking the Queen Mary II here if there’s gunfire in the streets as there was with the murder of Patrick Daley in 1992.
Len Sipes: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And so much of real innovation and improvement in the criminal justice system in delivering crime prevention services to communities means better schools, better jobs. More tax paying dollars.
Alex Calabrese: Absolutely. A lot of job opportunities for people who are living in Red Hook now, but again if you want to just take that dollars and cents approach, the city is making, you know, hand over fist compared to their initial investment here.
Len Sipes: That’s exactly right. Now this is something that is being replicated in more than more than six dozen cities around the world. What do you think was the key ingredient in terms of this reduction in crime? And the improvement of the overall community? Because we’ve talked about a lot of different strategies here. Is there one or two or three must haves? What are the lessons learned?
Greg Berman: Well, you know, I think that we probably, each of the three of us, probably has a different take on that. And I think that, you know, one wants to cast a very skeptical eye on people claiming credit for crime reductions, right? Because I feel like this story of why crime goes up and why crime goes down is a very complicated one that, you know, even however many decades we’re into the New York City miracle now, I still don’t have an adequate, I haven’t seen one piece of research that feels like the definitive story.
Len Sipes: And when you talk about the New York City miracle, you’re talking about the overall reduction in crime in the city of New York.
Greg Berman: I’m talking about the reduction in crime.
Len Sipes: Right.
Greg Berman: Yes.
Len Sipes: Right.
Greg Berman: So I want to put that caveat out there up front in all due humility and modesty.
Len Sipes: Okay.
Greg Berman: I think that the other thing , the other thing to express and I want to also give (chuckle) along this theme of modesty is the person that helped plan this project, I want to give the lion’s share of the credit to Judge Calabrese and the others who actually work in that facility, because the honest to goodness truth is that this project is so much better than anything that we drew up in the early stages of the conception of this project. And the reason it’s better is because of the people, the men and women who work there. And I think that what we, who worked on the planning, that kind of the policy raw nerves who worked on the planning of this process did was kind of set the table. And create an environment that said it was acceptable for the probation officers, the prosecutors, the court officers, the defenders, the judge to think about their jobs a little differently. And having done that, that has unleashed a torrent of creativity. And some of the stuff that the justice center does that I’m proudest of, that I think is the best, for example, the court officers do tutoring with kids after school. You know, I defy you to find any piece of documentation from when we were selling this project or conceiving of it that mentioned that kind of thing. You know, beyond our wildest dreams. And that was generated by the people who are on the ground, that if you kind of tell them it’s okay, we’re going to create this safe space where we understand not everything that the justice center tries is going to be a slam dunk success, we’re going to tolerate a little bit of failure in search of this greater success. And you ask all along who is involved, what’s the key ingredient? I think the key ingredient is unlocking the creativity of the people in the system.
Len Sipes: One of the things ,
Greg Berman: Judge Calabrese, you probably disagree or have a different take, I don’t know.
Alex Calabrese: I would thank you for the way you set it up and to run it and JTCS for the funding and for the project and for all of the other projects that we do here. I mean, we’re just given an opportunity here and we do our best but they just created a great project and a great concept with lots of services to really address the issues. And lots of youth services, it’s difficult to create youth programs that work and then it’s also difficult to see them effective. And if you ever see a youth court in action, it’s just dynamite. And the teenagers here in Red Hook are really doing well. And I’m not so say you can say that before we started.
Len Sipes: One of the things, I think needs to be said is once again, in terms of community courts, in terms of drug courts, in terms of mental health courts is that when the judiciary does take the lead, recidivism does seem to decrease. And it’s firmly established within the research that drug courts do seem to work. We now have early indications that mental health courts work when the judge becomes actively involved in the lives and the well being and at the same time holding defendants accountable. Holding offenders accountable, they seem to do much better. So there seems to be some spark, some sense of life, some sense of ingenuity when the judge gets directly involved in all of these case.
Denise O’Donnell: I really agree with that and I think for people from other states that may be listening in, the Center for Court Innovation, the front for modern courts, the fact that in New York State we have this wonderful entity to really support court based efforts of this type is really part of the great innovation that’s going on in this country. So I really urge people from other states to look at trying to fund court based projects like this which I think are so important. The other thing before we run out of time, I probably don’t have to tell you, but you know that everyone in the criminal justice community fought hard for continuing funding for the BURN JAG program. We had a 69 percent cut in our funding in New York State this year. So the funds from this program are the discretionary funds that we have to invest in innovative programs like the community justice center. And I just want to make another pitch for everyone to support continued funding for that program.
Greg Berman: I want to just add ,
Len Sipes: Let me clarify, wait ,
Greg Berman: Ditto on what she said.
Len Sipes: Okay, but we have to clarify, it is the U.S. Department of Justice funding through the states that provided you all with the money to create this innovation. So it’s U.S. Department of Justice funding that has to be supported, correct?
Greg Berman: Well, you know, we have cobbled together funding from all arms of government, City, State and Federal. We’ve got private dollars here. But there’s no doubt that the BURN dollars, or the dollars through the justice department have just been crucial dollars. Not just for this experiment, for other experiments that we’ve created and they really leverage other dollars. And so I think you can’t overstate the importance of them.
Len Sipes: In the final minutes of the program I want to take one more crack of this in terms of a full understanding of what’s happened there at Red Hook. My guess is that there’s an awful lot of communities throughout the country. We all hear about violence and we have to focus on violence, we have to focus on major crime. But it’s the minor crime that drives communities crazy. And I won’t go into a lot of examples about this, but it’s the litter, it’s the disruption to people’s lives, it’s the vandalism. Those are the things that most people encounter and those are the things that create a sense as to whether the neighborhood is thriving or whether the neighborhood is going down the tubes. My guess is that ,
Alex Calabrese: Absolutely accurate. You’re completely right.
Len Sipes: My guess is that you all got together and through this magical coalition of law enforcement, corrections, the judiciary parole and probation, you all focused on the sort of crimes that drive a community crazy and improved this community to its core.
Greg Berman: I think that that’s true. And to get back to your question of what’s the magic ingredient. You know, I think that you hit on another thing that I would say is one of the core ingredients. Which is this spirit of partnership and collaboration. You know, I mean, it’s a cliché but the criminal justice system really acts as a system. It really tends to act as disparate actors. And what we’ve been able to do in this small community in southwest Brooklyn is get everybody, if not singing the same tune, you know, but from the same hymn though. And that’s been enormously important. And then the second thing is, as you said, to focus in like a laser beam on the kinds of low level criminal misbehavior that drives people crazy and craft a response to that that is a common sense response that combines punishment and help. And that’s a response that resonates with a broad majority of the public.
Len Sipes: When they understand cleaner neighborhood, when they understand neighborhoods that are a lot less noisy and look a lot more orderly. And I think that is something that often times in terms of the continued discussion as it needs to be a continued discussion in terms of violent crime and serious crime is that lower level, those lower level crimes that I think make such a big impact and I think kudos goes to Denise O’Donnell from the state of New York Division of Criminal Justice Services for funding this program. Getting it started through the U.S. Department of Justice funds. Greg Berman, the Director of the Center for Court Innovation. Greg, you were the person, you and many other people were responsible for setting all this up and figuring it out what you were supposed to do. And Judge Alex Calabrese who basically has been there sheparding the whole process. Your Honor do you think you’re the kingpin? Everything’s been flowing around you? Don’t be shy now.
Alex Calabrese: (Laughs) I think there are a lot of judges who would really thrive here and do really well. I don’t think, you know, I don’t think it’s just one person or a couple of people. I think they set up a project that a lot people could do well in. And the only thing that I did want to add is that as Greg was talking about, the survey originally before the justice center was open gave a favorable rating of only 12 percent. Well, recently they did a survey of the Red Hook community and the justice center received a 78 percent favorable rating. So you’ve gone to 12 to 78 percent.
Len Sipes: Amazing, amazing, amazing. Okay, your Honor, you’ve got the final word. Ladies and gentleman ,
Alex Calabrese: Well, there’s also one other final one that I think is important ,
Len Sipes: Okay.
Alex Calabrese: Our local precinct, the 76 precinct over the last two years had the highest percentage of crime drop in New York City, not just Brooklyn, but in New York City.
Len Sipes: Amazing.
Alex Calabrese: So you really see the benefits of this kind of approach.
Len Sipes: I’m honored to have help bring this to the country. This sounds like it’s such an important project. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety, another program with the National Criminal Justice Association looking at exemplary programs. Again, it’s Commissioner Denise O’Donnell of the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services; Greg Berman, Director of the Center for Court Innovation; and Judge Alex Calabrese, the Judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. They’re in Brooklyn in the grand city of New York. Ladies and gentlemen, please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

– Audio Ends –

The show is hosted by Leonard Sipes. The producer is Timothy Barnes. Bethany Broida, Communications Manager for the National Criminal Justice Association produced the program for NCJA.

%d bloggers like this: