Ahead of Budget Cuts, Justice Center Director Says It’s Worth The Investment For Brooklyn’s Future

On a recent sun-filled Friday afternoon, Coffey Park in Red Hook was bustling with the graduates of the Red Hook Community Justice Center’s youth programs.  James Brodick, the center’s project director, stood behind the guests, chatting with teenagers and staff as guests arrived.  The center’s aim, he said, is to “hold [people] accountable and get their lives back on track.”

Mr. Brodick attends nearly every youth program graduation, but often, graduation does not mean goodbye since many of the kids will move onto another youth program.  Many of the teenagers have been coming to the Justice Center since they were as young as ten, often to play in the baseball league the Justice Center operates every summer.  He says, “We try to monitor them and offer programs and services until they are college ready and at that point we encourage them to go to college or join our AmeriCorps program.”  The Justice Center operates the Red Hook Public Safety Corps, an AmeriCorps community service program.

One of the Justice Center’s unique programs is Youth ECHO, which links popular youth leaders in Red Hook with marketing specialists.  This year’s campaign encouraged youths to stay in school and resist “fast money” that comes from “underground economies.”  The slogan they use to combat the recruitment of young people into the violent and pervasive drug trade in Brooklyn is, “Fast money is trash money.  Get it in now.  Get it back later.  Stay in school.”   Youth ECHO participants spread the message via a blend of new media and traditional methods, including text messaging, YouTube videos and even a basketball tournament.

According to Elise White, who runs Youth ECHO, the program is vital because youths “are so often perceived as ‘the problem’ [and] Youth ECHO recognizes them as some of the major authorities on ‘the solution.’”  Ms. White also reported that a Justice Center survey concerning Youth ECHO revealed that after completing the program, many youths said “they fought less, developed stronger communication skills, learned how to negotiate and compromise, and felt that they had grown as thinkers, problem solvers, and team-members.”

Unfortunately, the program’s budget is going to be cut back, because of inadequate funding.  Youth ECHO, which is currently run as an eight-month afterschool program, will transition into a summer employment program beginning in 2010.

It is pioneering programming like Youth ECHO that keeps Mr. Brodick at the Justice Center.  He is an original member of their planning committee and he has continued working for the organization since they formally opened in 2000.  He describes his role at the Justice Center as that of convener because he learns what the community’s needs are, identifies organizations that specialize in tending to those needs and then brings the parties together.

From the beginning, the center’s history has been extensively recorded, including in the documentary Red Hook Justice, which aired on PBS in 2005.   By the time the documentary aired, Mr. Brodick says Brooklynites were already familiar with the Justice Center’s work.  Rather, Red Hook Justice increased their visibility on the national and international levels.

The Justice Center’s innovative approach is modeled after America’s first community court, the Midtown Community Court.  Community courts are becoming more popular across the globe, with projects in Liverpool and other cities in the UK as well as South Africa.  The growing number of projects, more recently in Australia and Canada, is a testament to the innovative approach.  The Justice Center and the Midtown Community Court are both projects of the Center for Court Innovation, a non-profit think tank based in New York City.

Housed in an old parochial school at 88 Visitation Place, the center, at its core, is a courthouse with Judge Alex Calabrese presiding over cases involving civil, criminal and family law issues.  It offers a holistic approach to criminal justice by attempting to redress the underlying cause of the crime and prevent recidivism through social services such as education workshops and mental health counseling.  The cross-section of cases heard by the judge also distinguishes it from other courts, which hear only one type of case.  Judge Calabrese was not present at Friday’s graduation, though he often attends the graduations to remind the young participants that they are integral to the Justice Center’s mission.

The program does have its critics, and they argue that the Justice Center is a “hug-a-thug” court and that it costs the City too much money.   Mr. Brodick, though, has no doubt that the City has recovered the investment it made in the Justice Center.  Mr. Brodick points out that the Justice Center provides courthouse services for New York City and that all of its peripheral programs are supported through fundraising.

Given the changed landscape of the neighborhood, including the Ikea, Fairway Market and a new dock for Queen Mary 2, Mr. Brodick states with certainty that “ten years later Red Hook is a much different place than it was when [the Justice Center] first opened and the City has probably recouped its money 100 times over for its initial investment.”

The Justice Center’s fundraising is successful enough that it can afford to pay its youth programs participants.  Many received their second and final paychecks at the graduation.  Youth participants receive stipends ranging from $50 a month to $500 for a five-week summer term.

But the job wasn’t all about the money for Daniel Malloy.  Malloy, 18, and a resident of Brooklyn Heights, plays intramural basketball in Red Hook.  He recently finished his stint with Youth Court, one of the Justice Center’s most established youth programs, by serving as the youth advocate, a role analogous to public defender.  Malloy reveals that he “didn’t only do it for the money, but for the simple fact that [he] wanted to give back to [his] community and [he] wanted to make a difference.”

Before the Justice Center arrived in 2000, Youth Court had been in operation for two years, holding hearings in public housing apartments and the local church.  Youth Court members assume the roles of judge, jury and advocates.  They are aged 14-18 and hail from local high schools.  This past year, seven of 18 participants were Red Hook residents.  The selection process for Youth Court membership involves a paper application and a group interview.  Once applicants are selected, they fulfill a ten-week training course capped by an exam.

Youth Court hears cases involving defendants aged 10 to 18, who are implicated in low-level offenses such as truancy and fare evasion.  The goal is to apply “positive peer pressure” to defendants.  Youth Court hears cases from defendants in Brooklyn’s 72nd, 76th and 78th precincts who have already admitted their guilt.  Sentences vary from community service to letters of apology.  For Mr. Malloy, the experience solidified his desire to enter the legal profession.

Mr. Malloy, who will start as a freshman at Cornell University in the fall, plans on studying philosophy before attending law school.  Malloy says, “I feel that philosophy is one of the few areas…that combines analytical thinking and logical reasoning and I felt those two traits are essential to becoming a successful attorney…[and serving on Youth Court] was one of the first initiatives I could take to pursue my interest in law.”

In addition to Youth ECHO and Youth Court, the Justice Center coordinates internships between local teens and area organizations.  Graduate Fahrid Kone, who is 15 and attends the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice, secured an internship with Starting Artists, located nearby on Smith Street.  After Mr. Kone shook hands with Justice Center staff and received his certificate, he received additional laudation for his conscientiousness.

One of the staff members revealed that earlier this summer, Mr. Kone sped on his bike across the borough from Bed-Stuy to Red Hook to guarantee his timesheets were submitted on time.   After he starts his junior year of high school, Mr. Kone will apply for membership on Youth Court, which would keep him connected to the Justice Center through the end of his high school career.

And some youths never sever the tie, even after high school.  Shante Martin finished her Youth Court service in 1999 only to return to the place that nurtured her interest in community justice.   After high school, she earned a degree in criminal justice and then a master’s in public policy.  Today, Ms. Martin is the Justice Center’s Youth Programs Director and she oversees all youth programs.  In addition, another Youth Court alumna, Erica Tapia, who finished her service in 1998, manages today’s Youth Court.

Ms. Martin is confident in the youth programs’ current successes as well as their potential for continued and greater successes.  She says, “We are doing a great job with Youth Court but I want to bring it to the next level.  I want to teach the Youth Court members that there are so many things they can do in the future as far as career and education options.”

After more than a decade with the Justice Center, Mr. Brodick has shared his professional experiences with many visitors, and he reminds them that the objective behind the youth programs is more than employment and that it is bigger than criminal justice.  The objective is to get youths to “think of the criminal justice system differently [and] get involved in a proactive way.”  After all, Mr. Brodick says, the Justice Center is “grooming future leaders.”

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