A Court of Intention, Giving Back to Its Community
NEW YORK CITY, NY - The fourth nor’easter to hit New York City in a month was a cold start to spring, but at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, warmth and energy prevailed like any other day. Judge Alex M. Calabrese was in his black gown by 9:30am, and court attorney Edna McGoldrick was on her feet, shuffling manila files between offices and the courtroom.
Most defendants had shown up, including a young mother and her four-month old baby, despite the flurry of snow outside.
Among those waiting was Karen Blondel, who hoped to hear a settlement agreement for her months-long battle with her landlord, the New York City Housing Authority, over delayed repairs in her apartment.
She noticed water seeping through her bathroom wall last July, and when she saw the leak was headed towards an electric box, she called for a plumber. The Housing Authority had to remove the asbestos first, though, after which they left Ms. Blondel’s bathroom sink on her living room floor. It sat there until the plumber came, five months later.
Meanwhile, the bathroom was unusable. “I was pissed,” she said.
The Red Hook center is operated by the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York. Founded in 1993, the Center for Court Innovation takes a thoughtful, experimental, and research-driven approach to justice reform in New York, and has seen much success from its close to three dozen programs. The court at Red Hook is multi-jurisdictional, meaning a single judge hears cases from three normally separate courts: housing, family, and criminal. “In a justice system that likes to divide people up by legal jurisdiction, we know that sometimes the issues and challenges families face catch multiple systems,” said Viviana Gordon, Deputy Director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
The second most common type of case in Red Hook’s housing court — the one Ms. Blondel filed — are actions brought by tenants to force the housing authority to make repairs.
In most of the city’s housing courts, tenants and lawyers for landlords haggle in chaotic, crowded hallways. Many tenants agree (or are forced) to take a settlement before even seeing a judge. If they’re lucky, low-income tenants might qualify for legal counsel, under the Right to Counsel program passed recently in New York City.
“We have trials in elevator shafts,” said Gabriel Fonseca, a tenant attorney at the Bronx County Housing Court. At the Bronx court, “Blondel” would’ve been another name on a judge’s overflowing schedule, and her case one of over 2,200 that flush through the court every day.
Not at the Red Hook court. The staff refers to Ms. Blondel by her middle name, Dawn, and the judge is known to personally inspect tenant apartments to make sure the Housing Authority shows up for repairs. He calls every defendant to the bench and says, “Thank you for coming in today.” Follow-up court dates are assigned after Judge Calabrese asks defendants their preferred day of the week. When he noticed a woman waiting on repairs for a broken radiator, he stopped.
“How cold was it this morning?” he asked. “Can you wait until the 28th?”
The Red Hook court wants to help people be advocates for themselves, said Ms. Gordon. When staff realized tenants were coming to court with their Social Security cards and other important papers crumpled at the bottom of plastic bags, the center distributed folders for organizing documents. Posters break court procedures down into five steps, and flyers teach tenants how to report mold or manage their finances.
“If you’re a tenant in Red Hook you have to actively work hard to be evicted for not paying the rent,” Judge Calabrese explained outside the courtroom. “I mean you really have to work at it. We’re a community court, and we don’t want to evict our community.”
His hands pounded on the table as he spoke, giving his words a percussive urgency.
In Red Hook, defendants are people and community members before they are respondents in the courtroom. The staff give careful thought to every aspect of the court process and take deliberate actions to make the experience as comfortable as possible. The center plays movies in the intake department, lays out food and snacks, and tries to get cases called soon after a defendant checks in.
The court works with such intentionality because it recognizes how difficult the process already is for defendants. Speaking about drug-related cases, Ms. Gordon said, “Confronting your addiction and trying to get clean is harder than anything the court could ever mandate you to do.”
When a defendant on a drug-treatment plan reported missing a session because of a serious family emergency, Judge Calabrese did not question the excuse. “I believe him,” he said. “Not a problem.”
Until the turn of the century, Red Hook was known for its high crime rates and drug-related violence. Yet in the 1920s, it was the busiest freight port in the world. Containerization during the 1970s plunged the neighborhood into a steep economic decline, and the community is still reeling from feelings of disinvestment and neglect by the government.
“People felt a lot of decisions were being made, a lot of things were dumped on them, and a lot of deals happened that they had no access or voice in,” said Ms. Gordon.
Sitting in southwestern Brooklyn, Red Hook today is isolated from the rest of the borough and New York City. With no subway service in the neighborhood, residents must cross under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to reach the nearest F and G train stops. This separation cuts residents off from much-needed resources and opportunities but is also the foundation for a strong sense of community.
For Ms. Gordon, the discrete, defined community of Red Hook is partly why this court has been so successful. “People who live in Red Hook have a very strong identity of being from Red Hook,” she said. “So you could feel the change when it started to happen.”
An independent evaluation conducted in 2013 showed the Red Hook court decreased the number of offenders receiving jail time by 35 percent, adult recidivism by 10 percent, and youth, by 20 percent. The court also increased the use of alternative sentences like community service to 78 percent, compared to 22 percent in regular criminal courthouses in Brooklyn.
In addition to taking a holistic approach towards justice, the center provides resources that address underlying causes of crime rather than simply punish offenders. The Red Hook court prefers sanctions like covering graffiti or cleaning up trash to jail time, because these community service programs have proven to be better deterrents. To intervene in recurring criminal behavior, the court prescribes community-based drug treatment plans, makes referrals to mental-health professionals, and holds conflict resolution workshops.
All of these services are offered at the center, and any community member can walk in and use them even without an active court case.
Ms. Blondel likes to call herself an agitator. As a community organizer in Red Hook, one of her goals is to advocate for preventative maintenance rather than reactive operations in public housing.
But she’d been running around the community and organizing that she forgot about herself, she said.
Regardless of what the court would offer her that day, Ms. Blondel came prepared, with detailed timelines of repairs, attempts at repairs, and tickets to NYCHA that are resolved or still pending.
Some notes from her spreadsheet:
The day the painters came to paint.
Fixture installed but defective!
“I research everything, everyday,” she said. “I go through it deeper than most people because I want to change things for them.”
At the Red Hook court, everything is done to instill power into the community; simply having a dedicated judge and team of prosecutors shows residents there are people who care and who are listening.
“Those who are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions,” said Ms. Gordon. “Yet they’re also furthest away from the resources they need to bring about change.”
After decades of having decisions made for the them, Red Hook residents are feeling like they have a right to be at the table for changes that will impact their lives.