An evaluation report published last week concluded that the Red Hook Community Justice Center located in Brooklyn, New York, reduces recidivism and crime in the geographic area it serves. The evaluators conclude that a key factor is the public’s view of the court—and its judges—as legitimate:
“[B]ased on the available evidence, it appears that the Justice Center’s impact on crime and recidivism results primarily from the Justice Center’s ability to project its legitimacy to offenders and the local residential community rather than from strategies of deterrence or intervention.” (Lee et al, 2013, p. 164.)
This finding is consistent with a growing body of research showing that problem-solving courts are perceived by offenders as more procedurally fair than regular courts, and it is this difference that explains why offenders in adult drug courts fare better in terms of compliance with court orders and in recidivism.
This comprehensive evaluation of a community court offers a new dimension to our understanding of the role of the courts in securing voluntary compliance with the law. Ethnographic and other components of the evaluation demonstrate the extent to which the Justice Center is regarded as a truly local institution that shares the values of local residents. Recent procedural fairness research on policing in England and Wales emphasizes the importance of a “moral alignment” existing between the criminal-justice system and the public as a pathway to legitimacy and compliance. The study found evidence that the public’s perception that they have shared moral values with the police promotes voluntary compliance with the law, and that this perception complements the separate shared norm that there is a perceived obligation to obey police-officer commands, which is itself fostered through procedural-fairness principles. Thus, the public perception of shared moral values with those in authority complements the effect of authorities making decisions in what is perceived as a procedural fair manner.
Those combined forces—shared moral values and procedural fairness—seem to be at work in the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Before discussing that, though, some background is in order.
The Red Hook Community Justice Center opened in 2000 to serve the physically and socially isolated neighborhood of Red Hook. Planning for the Justice Center began at a time when the area was regarded as one of the crime-infested and run-down areas in New York City. The neighborhood is dominated by one of the largest public housing developments in the country. As part of the recent evaluation project, a team of urban ethnographers from John Jay College carried out extensive observations in the area served by the Justice Center. They also surveyed local residents and offenders. Other members of the research team interviewed key individuals from local organizations, such as the tenants’ association. The findings about procedural fairness stem mainly from evidence collected in that manner.
The following aspects of the Justice Center contributed to building legitimacy in the eyes of the local community.
Jurisdiction: The Justice Center is a multijurisdictional court, with the assigned judge hearing criminal misdemeanors, housing cases, and juvenile-delinquency cases. Inclusion of the landlord-tenant cases allows the Justice Center to make a difference in one of the core concerns of local residents: the quality of their housing and their relationship to the New York Housing Association. Through the housing court, the Justice Center made an immediate contribution to residents’ quality of life and provided them with a counterweight to the policies and actions of the New York City Housing Authority.
Community Engagement: The Justice Center and its staff became key participants in local initiatives—for example, leading efforts to reclaim a nearby park from drug dealers; sponsoring a baseball league and establishing other programs aimed at local youth; and making the resources in the Justice Center available to all residents.
The Judge: One judge has presided over the Justice Center since it opened. His courtroom interaction with offenders and their families exemplifies procedural-fairness principles. In the Center’s early days, the judge made a lasting impression by his willingness to personally look at the conditions in public housing units at dispute in a case. He is highly visible in the neighborhood not just by regularly attending the meetings of local groups but also walking through the neighborhood.
The Courthouse Culture: Staff located at the Justice Center are expected to follow norms for interacting with visitors to the courthouse, whether they come as defendants or otherwise, that reinforce a sense of procedural fairness.
The evaluation included a formal test of the degree to which the observed reduction in recidivism rates could be attributed to either deterrence through more certain and meaningful punishment or intervention by providing treatment programs. Neither explanation received support. The evidence, although indirect, points solidly to the legitimacy the Justice Center has accumulated by demonstrating that it shares community values and practices procedural fairness in its decision making.
The findings of the evaluation are available in A Community Court Grows in Brooklyn: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Both the full report and an executive summary are posted.