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New York State Judge Touts Progress of Community Justice Centers

New York State Judge Touts Progress of
Community Justice Centers

By Patrick Verel

Red Hook, Brooklyn, is different from the rest of New York City in many obvious ways, not the least of which is its physical isolation.

Cut off from the rest of the borough by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and surrounded on three sides by water, the neighborhood’s 11,000 residents are more on their own than the mile and a half separating them from Manhattan would indicate.

But as the Hon. Alex Calabrese, LAW ’79, explained to a classroom of law students and administrators on Feb. 26 during a luncheon talk, Red Hook’s isolation has also made it the perfect testing ground for a new kind of justice system.

Calabrese is the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multi-jurisdictional community court that opened in 2000 in a renovated parochial school. As part of his talk, Calabrese passed out copies of a Marie Claire photo essay that showed 12 mug shots, taken over 14 years, of a woman whose life was eventually destroyed by heroin.

“If you look at the identifying information, I can tell you that not once was she offered drug treatment,” he said. “This is the traditional court approach to cases, and thankfully the Red Hook Community Justice Center takes a more effective approach to these kinds of cases.”

Calabrese said the center was started, in part, as a reaction to the 1992 killing of Patrick Daly, the 48-year-old principal of Public School 15. The New York Police Department began cracking down on small offenses such as fare beating and open containers, which caused major crimes to begin to decrease. At the time, the community realized that there could be a better way to deal with low-level offenders who, like the woman in the photo essay, were simply being shuttled through the courts.

Now, if one of the 8,500 residents of the public housing complex in Red Hook is arrested for heroin possession, instead of reporting to three separate courts—criminal, family and housing—his or her issue can be handled under one roof. It is one of the reasons Red Hook saw the largest drop in major crimes in the city in 2006 and 2007.

“I have no social work training,” he said. “But someone with a master’s degree in social work can make a recommendation to the court about who should go into detox. Often, we can fit that recommendation right into the resolution of our case, monitor the person and make sure they’re doing what they need to do. Plus, we have a district attorney who understands the value of treatment, who will often dismiss the case. So it works out for everyone.”

Calabrese’s talk was co-sponsored by the Feerick Center for Social Justice and Dispute Resolution and the Stein Center for Law and Ethics, both at Fordham Law.

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