Alex Calabrese, Judge, Red Hook Community Justice Center

Interviews

Alex Calabrese, Judge, Red Hook Community Justice Center

Alex Calabrese, Judge, Red Hook Community Justice Center

Judge Alex Calabrese is the presiding judge at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multi-jurisdictional community court that opened its doors in 2000 in a renovated parochial school in southwest Brooklyn. Recently, he sat down with Center staff to discuss his work in the court.

What is the Red Hook Community Justice Center?
It is a community court, and like other community courts, it tries to determine the underlying problem that led to the defendant's criminal behavior, whether it be addiction, homelessness, lack of education or something else. We require defendants to address their problems while at the same time repaying the community they have harmed. A typical sentence can include mandatory drug treatment, job training, adult education classes, community service or a combination. The community benefits directly not only from the mandated community service—such as painting over graffiti and cleaning local parks—but, more importantly, by having a member of the community get to the root of his or her criminal activity and address it.

The Justice Center is also a multi-jurisdictional court. The reason for this is that people in Red Hook face a wide range of problems—from quality-of-life crime to domestic violence to substance abuse issues. These problems don't necessarily conform to the jurisdictional boundaries of our court system. A single family could find itself in Criminal Court, Housing Court and Family Court under the traditional court system. At the Red Hook Community Justice Center, we combine these jurisdictions, bringing all of these cases into one courtroom with one judge. The goal is to offer, as much as possible, a coordinated approach to people's problems.

What services are available at the Justice Center?
Everything from alcohol and drug treatment to job training to medical examinations and mental health counseling. They're all on site and available to anyone in need– not just defendants. To help families with small children, we even have on-site daycare so that they can drop off their children while they're taking advantage of the services we offer.

What is the advantage of having all of the service providers on site?
It allows us to respond to problems in the neighborhood quickly and effectively—before they escalate into greater conflicts. I'll give just one example. One of the local schools called us to say that a group of kids were starting to form a gang. We responded immediately. I went to the school to talk to the students. Our clinical director put together an anger management curriculum. A court officer who grew up in the neighborhood offered to talk to the kids about his perspective as a member of the community. And the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office brought in a former gang member who runs anti-violence programs around the country. ... The bottom line is that we can offer "one-stop shopping" for people in need, whether they're defendants or walk-ins from the community.

How does the Justice Center work with the community?
We do community outreach. In fact, it was a group of local residents who actually selected the site for the Justice Center. A task force from the local community board toured a number of potential locations before settling on the old Visitation School as the right choice. I think they were interested in seeing a valuable community resource brought back to life after it had been vacant for a number of years.

There are also other ways in which the Justice Center works with the community. The clerks and court officers, for example, have gotten together with attorneys from the Brooklyn D.A.'s Office and the Legal Aid Society to sponsor a local youth baseball league run by the Justice Center. And a few have even volunteered to manage teams and mentor some little leaguers during the week.

What is the Red Hook Public Safety Corps?
It was the first piece of the Justice Center to be implemented. Started in 1995—well before the renovation of the courthouse was completed—the Public Safety Corps is an AmeriCorps community service program with 50 members from Red Hook and surrounding neighborhoods. They perform one year of community service—fixing broken windows in the Red Hook Houses and helping out in our child care center, for example. It provides civic-minded residents with a chance to do positive things for the community.

How does the Justice Center engage the youth of Red Hook?
Some young people come to the Justice Center through the Red Hook Youth Court, which focuses on low-level youth offenders. Youth Court is comprised of local teenagers who are trained to be the judge, jury and advocates. The court uses positive peer pressure to ensure that young people who have committed offenses such as truancy, fare beating and shoplifting understand that their behavior impacts not just themselves, but also their families and the community. As sanctions, they are required to perform community service, write a letter of apology or attend a session of life-mapping skills where they are shown what is necessary to attain their personal goals.

I attended a hearing where a youth respondent was caught with a box cutter in school. At first he said he was holding it for a friend and the teacher just happened to catch him "at a bad time." Once the members of Youth Court started questioning him—the jury is allowed to ask questions—it became clear that he took the weapon to school with him. Then the jury asked, "Does your little brother look up to you?" The respondent answered, "Yes." The jury asked, "Would you want him carrying a box cutter to school?" The respondent answered, "Of course not!" Then the judge asked the clinching question, "If your younger brother sees you take a box cutter to school and he looks up to you, why isn't he going to do the same thing?" You could almost see the respondent start to think about being a role model and the message his behavior sent to his family and the community.

What we have found is that young people are more effective in delivering these kinds of messages to their peers than adults. I've seen a lot of Youth Court sessions and I know that an adult could talk to the respondents for two weeks straight and not get the same results as one Youth Court session. Most important, an effective intervention at a young age may save a kid from coming before me in Criminal Court when he or she is older and their problems have grown bigger.

Previously you served in Brooklyn Criminal Court. Is your role as judge of the Justice Center different?
I feel that I can accomplish much more at the Justice Center. The options that I had at the Criminal Court were basically jail and no jail, with very limited drug treatment. At the Justice Center, I have a full range of services where I can release a defendant on the condition that he or she take advantage of all these services. So you have a real chance at getting to the problem and preventing the defendant from coming back to the justice system.

What are your impressions of Red Hook as a neighborhood?
Red Hook feels very much like the neighborhood that I live in 10 minutes down the road, which I think makes it a very nice and special place to live and work in. I think the Justice Center adds to the steps already taken by members of the community. By having a presence in the community, I think we can really make great strides in lowering crime and making it a better place to live.

 

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