Stories

A different sort of court

What's the right punishment for drinking a beer in the park? Or staying there past 1 a.m.? For Brooklyn Judge Alex Calabrese, it's whatever helps the offender and the community get to a better place.

The frustrations and indignities of New York City’s criminal summonses system are on full display at 346 Broadway. Defendants who have received pink slips from the NYPD and other enforcement agencies wait for hours to find out where they are scheduled to appear before a judge, many for minor violations of quality-of-life laws. If they aren’t in attendance when their name is called, a warrant can be issued for their arrest.

“The whole netherworld of summonses court is really nasty,” said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at CUNY. “The courts have all of the plush and comfort of a welfare office.”

Four miles away in Brooklyn, the Red Hook Community Justice Center sits on a quiet, tree-lined street in a neighborhood of blue collar industry, housing projects and increasing gentrification. Security guards josh with visitors and might even lend them a John Grisham paperback to pass the time. The center’s courtroom is as intimidating as a Quaker church and has the same lack of pretension — rows of blond wooden pews leading up to two simple desks and chairs for the defense and prosecution. A wall of windows washes the room in natural light.

Judge Alex Calabrese has presided at the Red Hook Community Justice Center since it opened 12 years ago. Photo: Maura R. O’Connor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where Alex Calabrese, the center’s sole judge since it opened in 2000 in a renovated Catholic school, practices what the court’s founders call “problem-solving justice.” According to the Center for Court Innovation, which runs both the Red Hook Justice Center and its predecessor, the Midtown Community Court, problem-solving justice isn’t just adjudicating an offender. More profoundly, it’s a strategy to challenge recidivism and crime while generating trust between the justice system and communities once paralyzed by criminal activity.

“We treat people with respect when they walk in the front door,” explained Judge Calabrese. “That is our philosophy throughout the entire building: we work with people and helping them address their issues.”

Each year, the Criminal Court of the City of New York processes hundreds of thousands of summonses issued by the NYPD and some 40 other city agencies. Over 90 percent of these summonses are dealt with through four summonses courts around the city, including 346 Broadway. But a significant number – more than 30,000 — are filtered through the Midtown Community Court and Red Hook Justice Center.

Every Tuesday is summonses day at the Red Hook Justice Center and in the hours between breakfast and lunch, Judge Calabrese flies through about 300 pink slips issued by New York City Police Department’s 72nd, 76th and 78th Precincts, covering Sunset Park, Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus and Park Slope. He does so with a combination of extreme efficiency and geniality.

“Prospect Park closes at 1 a.m. Do you know that now?” he asked a young woman.

“I didn’t know,” she replied.

“Do you know now?” said the judge.

“Yes,” she said.

“Good,” he said. “Dismissed.”

When a man in his mid thirties appears on a summons that is dismissed — it failed to adequately describe the alleged offense — the judge takes a moment to inquire about his rehabilitation for drug addiction.

“How do you like the individual counseling?” asked Judge Calabrese.

“It’s wonderful,” the defendant responded, clearly surprised.

“Excellent,” said the judge. “This is great. You’ve gotten clean, you’re staying clean.”

Judge Calabrese works his way through a litany of summonses for riding bicycles on sidewalks, open containers of alcohol and disorderly conduct. Here and there a defendant chooses to pay a fine, but dozens of others are given an opportunity by court staff to skip the appearance and instead participate in a 30-minute “quality-of-life” group. These sessions, led by an employee of the justice center, invite defendants to put themselves in the shoes of their neighbors and engage in dialogue about the health of the community. In return for their participation, the defendants have their pink slips automatically dismissed.

“We’re very much aware of collateral consequences,” said Judge Calabrese. “There are significant consequences for summons cases. They go into a computer, they are available to colleges, they can affect financial aid. They are available to employers unless the case is dismissed and sealed. The fair thing to do for a number of cases is dismissal.”

Judge Calabrese has an assortment of sanctions available to him including the quality-of-life groups and community service, which may be why 86 percent of defendants at the center say they perceive the court to be fair.

“We like to work with people. They are told what the issue is and hopefully we’re not only coming up with fair results for the court and police but for the community as well,” he said. “It’s a one-judge court so there is monitoring that goes on. If we see the person come back to court then we know there is more of an issue.”

Summonses mediated through the community courts do not show up in the court system’s data and were excluded from a September New York World map showing summonses issued throughout New York City. But using quarterly reports obtained from the NYPD by the City Council, The New York World was able to estimate the total number of summonses issued in the seven precincts that send cases to the two community courts. (Learn more about how The New York World found and used the numbers.)

Among the seven precincts police in the 14th Precinct, better known as Midtown South, gave out the most summonses, around 10,800 last year. The 76th Precinct in Red Hook and Carroll Gardens gave out the fewest, with some 1,900. Together, these precincts issued an average number of pink slips relative to all precincts in the five boroughs.

In the coming year, the Center for Court Innovation is looking to expand to neighborhoods where tensions between the NYPD and residents receiving summonses often run higher. The center helped launch Project Safe Surrender in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which allows people with arrest warrants — many for unresolved summonses — to clear their records.

Last month, the center received a federal grant for $600,000 to tackle crime in Brownsville and will be opening a community justice center in that neighborhood which will also deal with summonses.

“What we are trying to do is come up with a proportionate response to what are in fact minor infractions,” said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation. “There is an environment at Red Hook and Midtown that is dramatically different from standard operating procedure. They are designed to be more user friendly, more hospitable than what can often feel like a mill.”

A 2002 academic study by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Fagan and Victoria Malkin called the community courts an ideal model, in part for applying “restorative justice” — sanctions that help both the victim and the community’s needs and restore the legal system’s legitimacy in the neighborhood. It also helps that the “staff is, for the most part, extremely pleasant (especially in relation to downtown courts),” wrote the authors.

But Fagan and Malkin also pointed out that the center “sits in the crossfire between citizens and the police” and had limited means to address tensions between them. Even though quality-of-life groups, for example, allow participants an opportunity to have tickets dismissed quickly, the “format of the groups means they are denied any forum to express their discontent” about the validity of their treatment by cops.

Summonses are just a small part of what the Red Hook Community Justice Center does: It also holds civil, family and criminal court proceedings and runs a drug-treatment program that currently has about 180 participants. Nonetheless, the center still processed about 12,500 summonses last year.

According to 2011 data provided by the Center for Court Innovation, Judge Calabrese dismissed 52 percent of the tickets and ordered 438 people to do community service.

In Midtown Community Court, where police in Midtown North, Midtown South, and 18th and 20th precincts gave out more than 25,000 summonses last year, 4,500 defendants received alternative sanctions, such as community service involving painting over graffiti, street sweeping and cleaning local parks.

At a recent quality-of-life group at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a dozen-odd participants of varying ages and ethnicities sat in a circle to talk about the offenses they committed.

“I was riding my bike the wrong way around Prospect Park.”

“We were drinking beer at a picnic.”

The moderator encouraged them to think about how their actions affected others while explaining points of the law that they might not be aware of. The atmosphere was cordial and, after about 20 minutes, the group disbanded.

For one participant, however, the gathering had done little to address the injustice he felt at having to be in court in the first place. “It was a waste of time,” said Michael Greene, 28, who was missing work at a café to appear. “I don’t think they should be giving summonses for this stuff.”

Greene, who is black, was charged with littering, an offense he vehemently denied. According to him, police accused him of smoking marijuana and when they didn’t find anything on him, an officer gave the surprised Greene a summons. “I wasn’t littering,” said Greene. “I think that he just did it to show people he did something.”