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Community Justice Center: USA

Brooklyn's community court resolves minor offenses empowers locals in the southwest area of the borough

June 6, 2023
Author: Léah Guyot

Established in 2000, the Red Hook Community Justice Center is the USA’s first multi-jurisdictional community court (i.e., a court that is able to deal with family, civil, and criminal cases) which takes a problem-solving approach to providing the residents of South Brooklyn with access to justice. The Justice Center streamlines access to justice with cases heard through a single judge rather than three different courts and adopts an alternative sentencing program focused on treatment, not necessarily punishment.

In response to an increase in drug offenses and criminal behavior in a Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City (USA), the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC) was established to restore social cohesion by reducing crime and improving trust in the justice system. Breaking from typical justice models in the USA, RHCJC uses an approach of restorative and rehabilitative justice, through the principle of repairing harm, rather than to punish. Moreover, to streamline cases, this “one-stop” multi-jurisdictional court is able to hear all cases that would normally go through separate civil, criminal, or family courts. A team of assistant district attorneys with knowledge of the community is specifically assigned to the Justice Center.1

The RHCJC offers residents a variety of programs designed to restore public safety and trust in justice, sometimes mandating participation in those programs as part of a sentence.2 For example, they include:

  • Drug-treatment and on-site services to all community members, not only those going through the court system, with the intent of reducing involvement with the system. Services for survivors are also available, including counseling and trauma-informed services.
  • A voluntary peacemaking program, based on traditional Native American approaches, which provides a space for defendants to acknowledge the harm caused to the victim and to the community, to restore trust and cohesion. Outcomes often include apologies, commitments to resolve disputes peacefully, and steps to address underlying issues.3 In addition, there is a youth court which trains young people from Red Hook to resolve disputes restoratively.4
  • A Housing Resource Center, providing residents with assistance regarding repair issues, rental arrears, and support navigating housing court cases. The Center also works to prevent issues, working with residents to raise awareness on unhealthy living conditions, public housing rights, and resources the Center offers.5
  • The Bridging the Gap program, which brings together Red Hook youth and local police officers to break down stereotypes and promote positive interactions.


In 2000, RHCJC was established, following the success of Times Square’s community court (opened in 1993 in Midtown Manhattan), which offered programs with a view toward rehabilitation rather than punishment.7

Soon after the opening of the Times Square community court, District Attorney Hynes announced in 1993 that another court would open in Red Hook. It took seven years for the Justice Center to be established. Focus groups were held with residents of Red Hook in order to learn about the neighborhood and identify people’s needs and concerns. A task force appointed by the local community was appointed, to ensure residents’ inputs would be part of the planning and implementation process as the project progressed.

In 1999, court planners identified Judge Alex Calabrese to preside over the RHCJC and stayed until his retirement in October 2022. Judge Sharen Hudson has taken over at the Justice Center.

The RHCJC is the product of a unique public-private partnership that has engaged all levels of government: county, city, state, and federal.8


Financial information from calendar years 1994-2000 (years prior to the opening of the RHCJC in April 2000) show that the initial project budget was USD 35,000, provided by private donors and foundations. The total budget quickly grew to over USD seven million, with additional funding from New York City, New York State, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Information from 2010 shows that, at the time, the RHJCJ received about one third of its funding from federal agencies, 40 percent from New York States Agencies, 21 percent from New York City Economic Development Corporation, and about six percent from private foundations and donations.9


In 2010, an independent evaluation of the RHCJC, funded by the National Institute of Justice, was conducted by the National Center for State Courts, the Center for Court Innovation and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.10 The evaluation found that the number of arrests, the recidivism rate (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend), and the use of jail time had dropped since the establishment of the court.

Data from the RHCJC also shows that the Housing Resource Center provided better process and outcomes: in 2019, fewer than one percent of Red Hook housing court cases received a default judgment (a court decision in favor of one side when the other party failed to appear before court), compared to 14 percent of cases in the downtown Brooklyn housing court. That same year, 34 percent of housing court filings in Red Hook were initiated by tenants seeking repairs in their units, compared with just seven percent of cases in Brooklyn overall.11

A 2016 community survey in Red Hook,12 found that the majority of respondents had a positive attitude towards the RHCJC, with an overwhelming majority reporting that they felt it was effective at dealing with crime. For those who were asked about their treatment in the Court, the majority of respondents reported that they had been treated fairly. This metric is particularly important, as studies have shown that litigants who feel their sentencing was fair are more likely to comply with court mandated sanctions and abide by the law in the future.13

RHCJC has become an international model of justice reform, and is often praised by advocates of justice reform and people-centered justice.14 It has inspired similar projects in other cities and countries, such as the Neighborhood Justice Center in Australia, 15 or the Downtown Community Court in Vancouver, Canada.16

Additional Information

Finally, the Court’s judges rigorously monitor compliance with mandated sanctions through state-of-the-art technology.17

Data from the 1990 Census show that residents of Red Hook were largely Black and Hispanic. with a lower median income than the rest of New York City.18