Community Court in Brooklyn Lowers Recidivism, Researchers Find

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Community Court in Brooklyn Lowers Recidivism, Researchers Find

Community Court in Brooklyn Lowers Recidivism, Researchers Find

Cynthia G. Lee and David B. Rottman, researchers from the National Center for State Courts, discuss some of the key findings in their new report, A Community Court Grows in Brooklyn: A Comprehensive Evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. (November 2013)

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ROBERT V. WOLF:  [Opening theme music] I'm Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation, and today’s New Thinking podcast is about research and the Red Hook Community Justice Center. On the phone with me today are David B. Rottman and Cynthia G. Lee, both from the National Center for State Courts, and they are two of the seven researchers who have just completed a comprehensive evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center.  Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.

DAVID B. ROTTMAN:  Well thanks Rob.  We appreciate the opportunity.

WOLF:  Well I thought maybe we could start off with a little overview of what the Red Hook Community Justice Center actually is.

CYNTHIA G. LEE:  The Red Hook Community Justice Center opened in the year 2000 in an underserved neighborhood in a physically and socially isolated part of Brooklyn, dominated by the Red Hook houses, which are a very large public housing project. And there was a lot of concern about drug-related crime in the public housing project, and that’s where the impetus for this project came from. The court is a multi-jurisdictional court that handles misdemeanor and other low-level criminal cases, summonses that are citations that don’t rise to the level of a criminal case, juvenile delinquency cases, and also landlord-tenant cases arising in public housing. And it also offers a whole range of community and youth programs for local residents.

WOLF:  So the Justice Center, it’s a big place with a lot of programs and a lot of clients, which makes me want to ask you how you broke down your research into components that were manageable and measurable. 

ROTTMAN:  The Justice Center is, indeed, a complex operation, but we broke our work down into trying to answer five fundamental questions. The first question we asked was, “Did the Justice Center get implemented in the way that its planners intended it to?”  The second question is, “Did the Justice Center improve upon the results that we see for defendants that are being processed in the centralized courthouse in Brooklyn?”  We wanted to know in particular, was there lower recidivism rates at Red Hook than downtown? And also was there a reduction in the levels of crime?  The third question we asked was, “Did the presence of the court have an impact on how the courts, the justice system are received by defendants, as well as by the local residents?” Our fourth question was an important one these days, “Is the Justice Center cost efficient in the view of the taxpayer?”  And the fifth question, and perhaps the most important one and the most difficult to answer is, “Why did the Justice Center produce any observed results in terms of improving upon business as usual in the downtown courts?”  So those were our five basic questions.

WOLF:  Where did you collect the data that would allow you to answer those five research questions?

ROTTMAN:  Because it was a community court, we did hire a group of urban ethnographers with a lot of experience working in low income neighborhoods and justice system issues, to help us interview residents in the area, offenders who had been to the court, as well as to get offenders who perhaps had not been to the court, but what they thought about it, what they’d heard, what the word on the street was about the Justice Center.  We, ourselves, spent five weeks in Red Hook interviewing people who work in the court, people in community organizations who have close ties with the court, to try to understand how the court operates and how it is connected to this neighborhood, and we also did observations both in the courthouse itself and also in various neighborhoods, and we collected a great deal of case-level data of court records.

WOLF:  Well you mention that one of your research questions involved impacts on recidivism, so I thought maybe could jump to that.

LEE:  Well to answer this question, we compared defendants whose cases were processed at the Justice Center with similar defendants who are arrested in the Justice Center’s catchment area, but had their cases processed at Kings County Criminal Court in downtown Brooklyn.  We used a technique that’s called propensity score analysis to make sure that the people in each sample were as similar as possible in terms of demographics, previous criminal history, and the current charges. 

So when we look at the re-arrest rates for these two groups, we found that 36 percent of the defendants who’d been through the Justice Center were rearrested within two years, compared with 40 percent of the downtown defendants. That’s a decrease of four percentage points or 10 percent in the re-arrest rate, which is statistically significant. 

And we also used a technique that’s called survival analysis, that allowed us to further control for factors such as the characteristics of the defendants in the case and this analysis confirms that case processing at the Justice Center is associated with a statistically significant decrease in the risk of recidivism. 

WOLF:  So 10 percent lower recidivism two years out, after they’ve left the Justice Center, or was it after they were arrested?

LEE:  It was within two years after arraignment.

WOLF:  Were you able to come up with a theory as to why the Justice Center was able to achieve lower recidivism among the defendants who passed through the Justice Center?

CYNTHIA LEE:  Well we started out with three hypotheses about how the Justice Center was intended to reduce recidivism.  So the first one of these mechanisms is deterrence.  Here, the Justice Center’s goal is to impose meaningful punishment such as community service with greater certainty than other misdemeanor courts in New York City.  The idea is that if people know they’re going to get punished, then they'll be less likely to commit crimes in the future. 

The second mechanism is intervention.  So here, the Justice Center tries to prevent crime by addressing its underlying causes, and the Justice Center’s biggest intervention program is treatment for drug addiction that’s supervised by the judge. 

The third mechanism is called legitimacy.  So the idea here is that if people believe that the court has the moral right to enforce the law, they’ll voluntarily obey the law just because they feel like they should, not because they’re afraid of being punished.  One was that the Justice Center works to establish its legitimacy is by connecting to the neighborhood around issues that are important to the community, like conditions in public housing and conditions in the local park.  But any court’s most important source of legitimacy is what’s known as procedural justice—in the interaction between the judge and the people who appear before that judge in the courtroom. Procedural justice means that people feel they’re being treated with respect, that the judge’s decision is impartial and it’s based on the facts, that they’ve had an opportunity to express their viewpoint to the judge, and that the judge is trustworthy and sincerely concerned about all of the people who are involved in the case. 

When we tested these hypotheses in our analysis, we didn't find any evidence that either deterrence or intervention was at work, at least as we were able to operationalize these concepts based on the data that were available to us. People who were sentenced to community service were not any less likely to be rearrested than people who got off with “a walk,” and Red Hook defendants who went through the drug treatment program didn’t really seem to do any better than similar downtown defendants who didn’t get drug treatment. 

This leaves legitimacy as the most likely explanation for the decrease that we saw in recidivism. There was a lot of evidence in our interviews and the ethnographic analysis that people who’d been defendants at the Justice Center, along with people just living in the community at large, perceived a high degree of procedural justice in the court’s handling of cases, and in its relations with the community.

WOLF:  Well so that would be the biggest factor—their attitude toward the court and their feeling that the court was treating them fairly and was, in fact, legitimate even if a decision might have been adverse toward them?  Your theory is that they were more likely to respect that decision and less likely to recidivate as a result?

LEE:  Yes, and there’s actually a little bit of evidence for that in our ethnographic analysis. So there’s a distinction between procedural justice, which is what we’ve talked about, the perceptions of the processes being fair, versus distributive justice, or the actual result of the case. And when we first interviewed people who had been defendants, both at Red Hook and at the court downtown, we found that people who had been defendants at Red Hook were more likely to have a favorable impression on all of the procedural justice factors, but there was no difference in people’s perceptions of the outcome of the case, so this really lends credence to the fact that it is procedural justice rather than the sentence or the outcome of the case that’s having the impact. 

WOLF:  Very interesting.  Let me ask you about some other results relating to arrests.  Now you noted that crime, as reflected in the number of arrests, went down in the neighborhood served by the Justice Center. I wonder if you could explain how big the decline was and if you were able to identify what role the Justice Center might have played in that.

LEE:  Well we compared the arrest trends in the catchment area of the three police precincts that feed into the Justice Center with several neighboring precincts in Brooklyn.  Before the Justice Center opened, all of the arrest trends in all of the precincts showed a lot of variation from one month to the next, but when the Justice Center opened, the number of arrests in each of the three catchment area precincts dropped, and the trend stabilized, something that didn’t occur outside of the catchment area.

So for example, between January of 1994 and 1998, and when the Justice Center started taking cases in April of 2000, the monthly number of misdemeanor arrests in the 76th Precinct ranged anywhere from below 50 to more than 150. After the Justice Center opened, that line tended to hover right around 50 with a lot less variation.  The data don’t tell us whether the change in the number of arrests results from less crime in the catchment area or a change in police practices in the catchment area, but the timing and the fact that we didn’t observe similar changes in the neighboring precincts both point to some type of association with the opening of the Justice Center.

WOLF:  Another interesting finding involves an estimated savings that you found per defendant, and I think people would be very interested to hear what that savings was and how you figured those numbers out.

LEE:  We’ve identified that our reduced recidivism or reduced victimization from additional crime was the primary benefit of the Justice Center. So when we looked at the reduction recidivism within a two-year window and averaged it for all misdemeanor defendants, we found that the processing of each misdemeanor case at Red Hook was associated with an average decrease of about $1,400 in the victimization cost of property crimes, and a little over $3,000 in victimization costs for crimes against person, which amounts to a total of $4,756 in victimization cost savings per misdemeanor defendant.  And the victimization cost estimates we used are a standard set of estimates that are used by many criminal justice researchers. 

WOLF:  I see.  So that savings is about the savings accrued—if you put a financial value on the victimization costs, it’s not necessarily money that goes back into the system’s pocket or into the government’s pocket.  Is that correct?

LEE: That's exactly right.

ROTTMAN:  The real meaning is that from the taxpayers’ point of view in terms of the different ways that taxpayer money could be spent, keeping the Justice Center operational is beneficial. So the public gains more from the Justice Center than it costs.

WOLF:  We’re not able to touch on all your findings, but I just wondered if there were any other headline findings that you have.

ROTTMAN:  Well, I think the main headline finding is procedural justice.  The ability of a court to generate a belief in a community, among a group of people, that it is showing respect, that it’s neutral, allows voices to be heard, and above all, that it’s sincerely concerned about people.  And we know that of the lot of research, that is most likely to result in compliance with criminal justice decisions. 

I think the other thing that I would point out is the coherence of what goes on in the Justice Center—that you have people who work for the state court system, from different government agencies, or for community agencies. You have linkages to dozens of community based institutions that provide treatment services, so it’s quite remarkable that everything holds together so well, that there aren’t turf wars, there aren’t misunderstandings, but it operates so smoothly.

ROB WOLF:  Well thank you very much for taking the time to explain to me and basically reducing years of very challenging and fascinating work to a very brief conversation.  I have been speaking with David B. Rottman, and Cynthia G. Lee, both from the National Center for State Courts, about their evaluation of the Red Hook Community Justice Center that anyone who’s interested in judicial reform should read, and they can get a copy of the report on our website, www.courtinnovation.org, and of course also at the National Center for State Courts website, www.ncsc.org.  So once again David and Cynthia, thanks so much for talking with me.  I'm Rob Wolf, thanks very much for listening. [Closing theme music]

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