Cory Booker, the two-term mayor of Newark, N.J., discusses the city's new community court, Newark Community Solutions, and its part in his overall efforts to reform the justice system.
Below is a transcript of the conversation:
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking podcast. I recently had a chance to speak with Cory Booker, who’s in his second term as mayor of Newark.
The Center for Court Innovation has been collaborating with the City of Newark, the Newark court system, the Newark Corporation Counsel, social service providers, the defense bar, community stakeholders and numerous other partners in the creation of a new community court in Newark. Mayor Booker agreed to participate in a video we’re making about community courts, and what follows is an excerpt from the conversation that we filmed. Towards the end of our conversation, I’m joined by Jethro Antoine, project director of the Newark community court.
Mayor Cory Booker, thank you for being here. Why does a community court make sense for Newark?
CORY BOOKER: Well, justice has become so impersonal. And in many ways, it’s so much more about process than it is about outcome. And we need to be a city that focuses on what’s important. And number one, the outcomes we want. We want to see crime going down. We want to see people who are empowered, not just residents who are empowered by having the absence of crime, but people who have made bad choices. We want to empower them to make better choices and to become, in a sense, part of the community again. And so, this emphasis on repairing community, building community, restoring community, such a great opportunity it is to intervene with those folks who have done something to damage community or to strain community bonds.
WOLF: Let me ask you about a theme that comes up often at community courts, the goal of trying to lower incarceration or lower dependence on jail sentences while at the same time improving public safety. I wonder if you feel this is true that community court can help achieve those two goals, that they’re not mutually incompatible.
BOOKER: People make a mistake to think that, you know, lowering crime means more incarceration. It actually doesn’t, in fact. In fact, I think it creates a vicious circle because the more you incarcerate the more people are drawn into a process-driven system, the more they’re drawn into an anonymous system in which many ways people are ground down by the time they come out so that they actually have less options, less hope, less promise and often go right back to doing the things they were doing out of desperation.
And what we want to do is create a process that restores the strength and possibilities of folks who have the ability to be productive members of our society. If you just grind them into a system, you’re creating a process that’s more expensive. It achieves outcomes that are contrary to what you want, and you waste your community’s greatest potential, which are its people. So this to me is a great way of doing this. It’s less expensive and it’s more restorative to the community that prevents crime in the long-term and empowers people.
WOLF: Let me ask what issues you anticipate the community court to address. What are the public safety concerns? What are the problems that defendants are bringing to court that you hope it will address?
BOOKER: Well, a lot of the problems that we’re going to see are not – so we’re not talking about the very serious crimes. So I get this impression, people say “Oh, my gosh, they’re going to be letting people get off with community service who’ve done something really bad.” Now we’re talking about people who often get grounded into the system for problems that are often complained about a lot in a community—disorderly persons and other things—but often when they get into the court system, they’re just given a fine or time served and just sent right back out. Now that’s not solving any problems. And in many ways, that’s not necessarily even teaching a lesson, if that’s what people want from their system.
What we’re looking to do is take many those of what people consider low-level crimes, but crimes that have a deep and difficult impact on the community, and we really see that often this person, if you look at them in a holistic sense, there’s things that you can do and intervene with them to create a much better outcome, a sort of a restorative justice—and emphasis on restorative. I mean not only are they restoring a community, but you’re helping to restore the strength of a person to make better choices. And the punishment in many ways is like the almost hackneyed phrase “will fit the crime.” In other words, if you’ve done something damaging to the community, it’s much better to me if you go out there and do something positive for the community. And through that process, you get yourself, in many ways, reconnected to that community. And there are social service providers and others that can help you not only to reconnect but to be a more productive part of the community in the long-term.
WOLF: How does a community court fit into your overall plan for making the justice system in government more problem-solving?
BOOKER: We need to stop dealing within silos. The police do their job; the courts do their job; the prisons do their job; and really people are just sort of shifting from this one sector of the criminal justice system to another segment of the criminal justice system. And that is no way of creating the kind of radical transformations that I think are possible in society here in Newark.
We want the Newark community court to shift into a much more visionary way of approaching justice. And the justice system should be about justice. It shouldn’t just be about activity; it shouldn’t just be about process. It should be about creating a larger community justice. And so, the courts fit in in a great way because they act as a filter of community that’s stopping people from getting caught up in the system, and in many ways ground down and spit out often worse than they were when they first encountered the criminal justice system.
This is a filter that captures people’s potential. It captures possibility that stops them from going down a pathway that is just to me so costly to the society, so costly to the person, so costly to the community. This is a way of getting, sort of, instant dividends. By making an investment in the community court, you empower people; you help to feel the community. You make a punishment, so to speak, a doorway to possibilities and for healing in a much broader sense.
And so, you begin to lower the supply chain to criminality by cutting, starting to choke off. What often is the greatest supply of people doing things wrong are people who’ve done things wrong before. And you know, we see it that often, you know, when we talk about gateway drugs, there are some crimes that are actually gateway crimes. And once you get involved in the system, you find yourself ground down, dragged down, and you make very poor, bad choices. So this to me is a way of choking off that pipeline by giving people other options that are healing, that are restorative, that are testimonies to our highest aspirations for a justice system.
WOLF: Do you have any concerns that you open yourself to criticism by assigning the court or involving the court in a role that some people may say “that’s soft on crime” or “that’s sort of the work of social workers. That’s not what the court is for”?
BOOKER: We’ve had this long, painful cacophony of a chorus of people that have been saying “tough on crime, tough on crime, tough on crime.” And I watched that while I was growing up in the eighties and in the nineties.
And so, where are we? We are spending more than ever before in our country’s history on locking people up in our engagement in criminal system, justice system. We are spending more money, over a majority of our budget is just getting more police out there and do more incarceration, more arrests. So here we have years after of this sort of monolithic screaming for “tougher on crime, tougher on crime,” and we’ve created a system that’s so much more expensive, that has sucked more and more people in.
We imprison more people in America than any society per capita on the globe, and ultimately that doesn’t create any better situation. It just costs us more money, costs us more of our precious resources and eats up, in my opinion, the most precious natural resource our nation has, which is its people.
And so, to me I look at results. And I see what community courts have done in other communities, other societies, other places around the country. And to me, I’m just encouraged by it that it is ultimately cutting costs; it is ultimately liberating police officers from having to deal with the same people over and over and over again in that ridiculous pursuit. But more importantly, it’s recapturing the strength of individuals and making them, instead of agents of destruction to the community fabric, actually becoming a part of that community fabric themselves and making that stronger.
And so, to me, look, I’m not in this to appear tough on crime or perceptions. I’m in this to produce measurable results for my community that operate and work over the long-term. And this is what community courts do. And the data at this point is unassailable, and we think the ground here in Newark is fertile for one of the greatest community courts our nation has. We want to be the example going forward. And we’re going to show them it works, and we’re going to do it the right way by repairing our community, by strengthening our people, and by stopping the madness that often just makes things worse.
WOLF: I can’t think of anything else. Let me ask Jethro if there’s anything that comes to mind.
JETHRO ANTOINE: How do you see the community court dovetailing with your re-entry initiative, your efforts to engage communities?
BOOKER: So let’s take this continuum on. Let’s not accept the status quo. Let’s look at policing practices and the ways our people engage community because they are part of our community and what they do everyday affects us. Let’s take our court systems and begin to transform them to better reflect higher values, better empower people to succeed by doing things like our community courts. Let’s look at our correction system: what’s really happening in our prisons? Are we getting the best results for the incredible amounts we’re investing? And then, when people come home from prison, what are we doing to help them?
So we have actually tried to look at much of the continuum as we can assert influence over and change it to be a better continuum, a better system that ultimately creates what are our higher societal aspirations. So from community courts, from policing practices and community courts in the front-end, frankly, we’ve done a lot of innovations with the reentry program that resonate with the same philosophy of our community courts.
We found that if you provide people some administrative law, legal support so that they can get their driver’s license, they can clear up past warrants, they can get past issues expunged. They can then get a job. They’re better able to then feed their family. And they don’t think—they don’t hit this hopelessness that drives them to do things that are desperate and dangerous.
So to us, it’s really about we need as a society to recognize that we have major deficiencies and it’s a very expensive, very costly criminal justice system that begins in many ways to freeze in a sort of a horrific cold way that’s not human and not warm. It freezes those worst elements of our past. I mean here in New Jersey we have 14, 15 percent African-Americans. But our prison population’s over 60 percent black; and that’s ridiculous to me. And that reflects what we’ve been in America, not where we should be and where we need to be. It doesn’t reflect our destiny.
Justice, we are a nation of justice. And real justice is giving everybody clear, wide and abundant pathways to success, not slamming doors shut and choking off a potential of our community. We can’t have that happen. We are about—we must be a nation of empowering people. And if it’s just about a nation of blame and not a nation of responsibility, then we’re always going to be pointing fingers but nobody’s going to have the time to reach out a hand and help another person to move forward.
WOLF: You’ve been listening to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, talking about the Newark community court, which is slated to open in the coming months. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. To listen to more of our podcasts, visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thanks for listening.