Community courts are locality-focused courts that try to tie together the authority of the criminal justice system in order to tackle problems that face offenders as well as the community. The midtown community court was the first court of the kind; it opened way for others which have currently totaled to thirty. These courts play a major role of reducing crime in the neighborhood as well as reducing recidivism. This paper is going to look at the goals as well as roles of community courts so as to determine whether they work, how they can be changed in order to make them more efficient, and also examine their impacts on the criminal justice system.
Community courts, according to Anderson (1996), are neighborhood centered courts that try to connect the authority of the criminal justice system with intent of tackling local problems. Community courts can be of different forms, but all of them are founded on two principle aims; finding solutions to community problems and creating partnership. These courts, as pointed out by Community Court (n.d.), attempt to develop novel associations, both inside the criminal justice system and with stakeholders from the outside such as merchants, residents, learning and religious institutions as well. Community courts were founded on five major principles: restoring the community, developing a link between communities and the criminal justice system, helping offenders deal with factors that lead to crime, providing concrete information to court system, and establishing a physical courthouse which reflects these objectives (Community Court n.d.). Community courts test new and aggressive approaches to safety of the public instead of simply responding to crimes that have been committed. Midtown Community Court, established in 1993 as asserted by Anderson (1996), was the first court of the kind in New York City. Since then, more than 30 community courts have been established around the country. Midtown community court was established as a 3 year expression project, set in such a way as to test the capability of criminal courts to form closer associations with the community and establish a collaborative approach of coming up with solutions to various problems. The main purpose of establishing community courts was to offer an efficient as well as accessible justice for petty offenses (Freiberg, 2002). Freiberg (2002) notes that community courts were founded on the belief that traditional courts did not respond effectively to the need of the defendants as well as the community. This belief was based on various prepositions which include: that traditional court system dedicated inadequate time as well as resources to quality of life offenses; that citizens felt isolated and shut off from the court system; that when the community is subjected to quality of life crimes, it has a role in the production of justice as well as a role to play at the courthouse; and that crimes that are considered low level such as prostitution and destruction, erode the quality of life in the community and develop an atmosphere favorable for flourishing of other serious crimes (National Institute of Justice , n. d.). Community courts, as illustrated by Independent Television Service (n.d.), were established to do substantially more than just reproduce the usual processing of minor offenses in a locally-based setting. Midtown community court was situated in a central location in order to help solve problems that were specific to that area (Anderson, 1996). This area was characterized by high levels of quality of life crime; extreme dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the traditional court by the community; evident signs of disorder; and groups of persistent high-rate criminals who had serious problems, including homelessness and drug addiction. Midtown community court was established with an aim of making justice constructive, evident, effective, and most of all to make it responsive as well as meaningful to victims defendants as well the community at large (Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom, 2000).
Community Courts in New York City
For about 20 years that have passed, New York City was characterized by numerous murders, burglaries, thefts and drug deals (Independent Television Service, n.d.). Contrary to other cities, New York’s crime problems were not limited to a small number of inner-city neighborhoods that could be prevented. Bryant Park, situated at the center of the city just next to the New York Public Library, was an open air market for drugs; Grand Central Terminal, a huge flophouse; the Port Authority Bus Terminal, was a grim gauntlet for travelers escaping the nuisance of beggars, burglars, as well as impoverished drug addicts (Schill, 1999). The extreme crime level in New York City made riders abandon subways for fear of being assaulted (White, Willensky and Leadon, 2010). Disorder had created an environment that threatened all the sectors of urban life. Uncontrollable situations including prostitution, scams, drug dealing, aggressiveness and burglary threatened the economy of Times Square (National Institute of Justice (U.S.), (n.d.). Projects had been developed by the New York Police Department to tackle the rampant crime, but were unable. Sporadic police strategies were not enough to handle crime. As New York was suffering in crime as White, Willensky and Leadon (2010) argues, an idea cropped up that one day order would be restored. Restoration of order required cooperation of different private as well as governmental agencies. Attempts were made to try and restore order at Bryant Park but failed. Strategies were also devised to try and bring to an end disorder in the transport sector and get rid of graffiti from subway trains. Crime rate in New York City however, astonishingly dropped in the 1990s (White, Willensky and Leadon, 2010). Independent Television Service, (n.d.) states that although other cities also experienced a decline in crime, none was as sharp as New York’s. Neighborhood communities began demanding for restoration of order; even those that had been quite lenient with the unruly behavior. The judicial branch also got involved. The involvement of the judicial system resulted in the establishment of the Midtown Community Court in 1993 (Anderson, 1996). This community court was established with intent of handling those who commit minor offences. Midtown community criminal court was developed out of a clear frustration with the conventional response to quality of life offences (Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom, 2000). Business leaders, neighborhood residents and justice system innovators were among the supporters of this initiative. These groups felt that the grievances of the community were not being looked at, the way they should have, by the justice system (Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom, 2000). They also believed that justice system could use its influence to tackle the causes and conditions, which contribute to crime, more effectively (Independent Television Service, n.d.). Various agencies in the city, following their own interest, started attempting to restore order in their domains through the use of different tactics and approaches. The New York police Department was not left behind in the process of trying to restore order in the city. The order maintenance movement grew bigger after the York police Department joined the endeavor. The midtown community court developed a nonprofit agency, Center for Court Innovation, which assisted in developing the Red Hook Community Court in 1998 (Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom, 2000). Community justice has grown remarkably over the past fifteen years, both locally and globally. Various community courts that have been established since Midtown Community Court include: the Harlem Community Justice Center in Manhattan; San Francisco Community Justice Center; Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn; Harlem Community Justice Center; and Bronx Community Solutions among many others.
The main role of community courts, as illustrated by Anderson (1996), is to handle minor offenses such as public drunkenness and other disorderly behaviors by sentencing offenders to social services as well as treatment plans. Community courts, therefore, play a very unique role of decongesting jails that are crowded with minor offenders. Offenders arrested regularly for offenses such as trespassing, public drunkenness, and panhandling crowd prisons and deplete police resources (Clear, 2007). The cost of handling regularly committed minor offences, as per Clear (2007), is becoming more and more strenuous to the community as budget tightens and prison population increase. Community Courts come in hardy in that situation, because they sentence petty offenders to social services like substance abuse and mental health treatment rather than to prison. Community justice has over the last years played a vital role of reducing over-imprisonment. It also ensures that all criminal behaviors are dealt with, without necessarily involving imprisonment (Independent Television Service, n.d.). Community justice has assisted a lot of minor offenders escape a life of hard drugs and crime. Community courts helps turn around the lives of offenders by offering them a chance to live out of jail and look for the assistance they need. Before the community courts were established, defendants charged with petty offenses were usually fined, imprisoned or released into society without supervision or penalty; this practice did not take care of the social service needs of both the community and the defendant (Freiberg, 2002).
Community Court (n.d.) makes it clear that community courts take care of the social needs of the offender, the victim, and the community. Defendants, who are found guilty of an offense under community court system, are given a chance to choose between community service and paying a fine. Community courts, as Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom (2000) illustrates, also offers a wide range of community services that help tackle various problems facing defendants such as joblessness, lack of education and addiction. Community courts, through various social services, effectively tackle the underlying problems as well as the antisocial conduct of offenders (Community Court, n.d.). The effects of community courts in New York are obvious. These courts have resulted in a reduction in crime in addition to enhanced approaches towards justice (Anderson, 1996). Community courts represent core values of the judicial system. This enables them to come up with a meaningful and more visible system, through provision of a fair and fitting response to criminal conduct. Offenders, under community criminal justice, are made to pay back to society through various work projects in the neighborhood including tree planting, cleaning subway stations, and sorting recycled clothes and containers. Community criminal justice, to a great extent, stems the perpetual offending that discourages law abiding citizens (Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom, 2000). Research has shown that community courts have achieved a big percentage of its principle objectives which include: providing faster justice; making justice visible in the society where crimes occur; promoting implementation of low-level crime; marshaling the energy of local residents, businesses and agencies to work together on establishing community service as well as social projects; and to point out that communities are severely affected by minor offences (Freiberg, 2002). Community courts have somehow a completely different motive as compared to the conventional sentencing practices for petty offenses. Community courts primarily focus on bringing the community and the criminal justice system together so as to find solutions to community problems (Frazer, 2006). These courts believe in prevention of crime rather than severely punishing offenders (Community Court, n.d.). Administrators of community courts believe that potentially serious crimes can be prevented from occurring in the future if relatively minor crimes are given an appropriate response of magnitude equal to the crime itself. As a result of a large number of cases in the traditional courts, most defendants are persuaded to accept guilt in exchange for release with time served. Community courts view crimes as a resultant factor of both individual’s responsibility and social aspects (Schill, 1999). Community courts, therefore, based on that fact seeks to establish treatments on both levels. It addresses the factors that result in criminal behavior thereby preventing recidivism that may make an individual spend his lifetime in and out of jail (Freiberg, 2002).
Community courts have acquired more approval in the city as compared to the conventional courts (Community Court, n.d.). There is considerable evidence which shows that when the criminal justice system is perceived to be fair by the people, the tendency of them complying with the legal authority, the law, and the mandates of the court is very high. Studies have shown that offenders have a higher tendency of obeying the law if they believe that they are being treated fairly by the criminal justice system (Community Court, n.d.). In comparison with severe punishment, community services produce more positive behavior among offenders (Clear, 2006).
Community criminal justice plays a significant role of making communities safer by increasing the voluntary law abiding behavior by way of promoting defendant’s and community’s sense of fairness (Anderson, 1996). Sviridoff, Curtis, and Ostrom (2000) argue that community courts focus on problem solving. Due to the fact that most offenders in the community eventually pass through the community courts, it seems sensible for the courts to uphold close links to the community. If people see justice as being part of the locality, then the actuality of security as well as safety are more likely to be obtained. Community courts, through believing that citizens are clients to whom the criminal justice system must be liable, enhances confidence of the public in the justice system, thereby establishing the much needed trust in addition to changing the court system into a way of intervention thus improving the value of life in the locality (Freiberg, 2002). Anderson (1996) argues that community courts contribute to enhancements in quality of life conditions within the city and in the neighborhoods. Research has also shown that community courts results in reduction in the level of prostitution and illegal vending National Institute of Justice (U.S.), n.d.). During the first fourteen months of inauguration the Midtown Community Center arraigned approximately 12, 000 defendants (Anderson, 1996). Currently the court hears about 60 new cases everyday. Court administrators argue that the work carried out by community court is higher than that of other busy urban courts. Research has shown that majority of offenders sentenced to community service or treatment programs voluntarily continue with those programs even after completing their sentence, which is very much different from traditional sentencing (Frazer, 2006). Community courts also produce tangible results for defendant, victims, and communities, for example through reduction of recidivism, increasing community safety, linking victims with needed services and rehabilitating offenders (Frazer, 2006). Community justice system has also made processing of justice faster. Petty offenders are arrested, arraigned, sentenced and within the same or a few days, they complete their sentence. Criminal court has, therefore according to Frazer (2006), made accountability faster as delays between conviction and assignments to carry out community service sentences have made it easy for many to avoid their obligations. This practice has won the praise of police, defendants, residents as well as the criminal courts administrators. The Red Hook Community Justice Center, one of the community courts, aims at bringing to an end the cycle of quality of life crime by assisting offenders with on-site social services as well as administering sentences that have a magnitude equal to the crime and are beneficial to the community (Community Court, n.d.). The Red Hook Community Justice Center, according to (Community Court, n.d.), processes almost 80% of the cases filled within its authority. The Red Hook Community Justice Centre, therefore, processes almost all cases except for major crimes such as felony and civil trials. The Red Hook Community Justice Center is multi-jurisdictional; this means that a judge in this system can hear cases that would otherwise go to three different courts, that is, civil, criminal and family. Judges in the community courts, unlike the conventional system, work closely with social service counselors so as to acquire a detailed context on past issues (Community Court, n.d.). Research, as pointed out by (Community Court, n.d.), has shown that three quarters of offenders under the Red Hook comply with sanctions as compared to a half at the traditional system. Bronx Community Solutions is a scheme that aims at applying a problems solving strategy to quality of life crime in the Bronx. This scheme provides court administrators with various options for sentencing for non-violent crime. Through merging help and punishment Bronx Community Solutions aims at minimizing Bronx’s dependence on expensive as well as unproductive short term jail sentences, and establish public confidence that justice system is holding offenders liable and providing them with assistance they need to bring their criminal conduct to an end. Harlem community justice center aims at providing solutions to neighborhood problems in East and Central Harlem (Community Court, n.d.).
Community courts are neighborhood centered courts that try to connect the authority of the criminal justice system with intent of tackling local problems. They are founded on two principle aims; finding solutions to community problems and creating partnership. Community courts were founded on the belief that traditional courts did not respond effectively to the need of the defendants as well as the community. These courts test new and aggressive approaches to safety of the public instead of simply responding to crimes that have been committed. Midtown Community Court was the first community court in New York City. Midtown community court was situated in a central location in order to help solve problems that were specific to that area. Other community courts include: The Red Hook Community Justice Center, which aims at bringing to an end the cycle of quality of life crime by assisting offenders with on-site social services as well as administering sentences that have a magnitude equal to the crime and are beneficial to the community; Bronx Community Solutions, which is a program that aims at applying a problems solving strategy to quality of life crime in the Bronx; and Harlem community justice center, which aims at providing solutions to neighborhood problems in East and Central Harlem among many others. The main role of community courts is to handle minor offenses such as public drunkenness and other disorderly behaviors by sentencing offenders to social services as well as treatment plans. Community courts really work. Community justice system has assisted a lot of minor offenders escape a life of hard drugs and crime. Community courts helps turn around the lives of offenders by offering them a chance to live out of jail and look for the assistance they need. Community courts take care of the social needs of the offender, the victim, and the community. Community courts, through various social services, effectively tackle the underlying problems as well as the antisocial conduct of offenders. Community criminal justice plays a significant role of making communities safer by increasing the voluntary law abiding behavior by way of promoting defendant’s and community’s sense of fairness. Community courts also produce tangible results for defendant, victims, and communities, for example through reduction of recidivism, increasing community safety, linking victims with needed services and rehabilitating offenders.
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