Inspiring the Judiciary:
Community Courts Adapt Community Policing Principles
Since the early 1990s, more than 30 community courts have opened in jurisdictions across the United States. Focused on bridging the gap between the justice system and the neighborhoods they serve, community courts adapt the problem-solving approach, first tested by community policing, to the complex issues facing state and local courts. Community courts take many forms, but all attempt to solve neighborhood public safety issues through community collaboration, creative partnerships, and innovative programs. They build new relationships, engaging residents, schools, churches, and other stakeholders as advisors and volunteers to address problems like prostitution, graffiti, vandalism, and drugs. They combine punishment and help, requiring low-level offenders to pay back the community while at the same addressing the issues that often underlie criminal behavior, like drug addiction and unemployment. And they work toward tangible goals like decreased crime, improved neighborhood safety, greater accountability for low-level offenders, and increased public confidence in justice.
While modern community courts share a common set of principles, they are as diverse in their operations as the communities they serve. Since the nation’s first community court, the Midtown Community Court, was launched in Manhattan in 1993, community courts have been established all across the country—in central business districts, urban residential communities, and suburban neighborhoods, with a wide range of goals and strategies. In Seattle, the community court focuses on chronic offenders, providing them with necessary help while requiring that each complete community service at sites around the city. In New York City, the Harlem Community Justice Center runs a reentry court that helps both juvenile and adult parolees returning from state placement become productive, law-abiding citizens. And in Dallas, a court housed in an existing community center tests new low-cost ways of linking defendants to community-based services. The spread of these projects across the United States has been matched by increased international interest in community justice. South Africa, Australia, Canada, England, and Wales have established community courts, while plans are underway in Scotland and New Zealand.
The community court model has its origins in community policing and problem-oriented policing. Like these two policing innovations, community courts have a problem-solving orientation, focusing on bringing new resources from both inside and outside the justice system to bear on local public safety issues. Community courts have adopted community policing’s implementation methods by systematically assessing identified problems, engaging diverse stakeholders, and evaluating outcomes. Both focus on community engagement: they develop relationships with residents, business owners, religious officials, and other leaders, and involve these stakeholders in identifying local problems, setting priorities for problem-solving efforts, and helping to shape and sustain solutions. This common philosophical and practical approach fosters natural partnerships between community courts and local policing efforts. Leaders in both fields are likely to find fertile ground for collaboration in the following areas:
Communication: Both community court and community policing models place a premium on information. They use data drawn from a wide range of sources to analyze local problems and identify solutions. They also communicate regularly about their work, allowing them to better monitor the impact of their work. For example, the Philadelphia Community Court has an on-site police liaison who updates the 10 police districts served by the court on case outcomes and also provides training to new officers about how the community court operates.
Community outreach: Both community policing and community court initiatives believe that citizens and neighborhood groups have an important role to play in helping the justice system identify, prioritize, and solve local problems. Actively engaging citizens helps improve public trust in the justice system. Greater trust, in turn, helps people feel safer, fosters law-abiding behavior, and makes citizens more willing to cooperate in the pursuit of justice (as witnesses or jurors, for example). Police representatives and staff from the Hartford Community Court attend community meetings, listen to community problems, and report on how they’re working to resolve them. At Bronx Community Solutions in New York, which serves an entire county, staff meet monthly with community affairs officers from the county’s 13 police precincts to collect police recommendations for community service projects from throughout the Bronx.
Education: Both police and community courts seek to educate the public about the law and the justice system. At the Harlem Community Justice Center, court staff and police officers work together to create workshops for local youth, helping them better understand how the police and courts work. Included are role plays on topics such as what to do when you’re stopped by the police.
Collaboration: By working together, police and community courts can address difficult problems more effectively. Local police officers work side by side with case managers from the Midtown Community Court in New York to identify homeless hot spots and offer services to homeless individuals. The police officer provides both security and authority to the case worker, while the case worker provides expertise in working with this difficult population. Since the program was launched more than a decade ago, these teams have persuaded thousands of clients to visit the courthouse voluntarily to receive help with entitlements, housing, job training, drug treatment, mental health counseling, and other services. In Indianapolis, police officers participate in court-run panels that bring together offenders and community members to discuss the impact of low-level crime on local neighborhoods. The panels have proven an effective tool for dealing with everything from prostitution to panhandling. At a typical session, police participants help explain the strategies they apply to handle these vexing problems and answer questions from both community member and offenders.