A Different Approach to Crime in a New York Neighborhood Is Working, Report Says

Red Hook Justice Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Red Hook Justice Center, Brooklyn, N.Y

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- On a recent afternoon in a Red Hook courtroom, a disheveled young woman in a baggy blue sweatshirt was being sentenced for a drug-related offense. The judge had seen her in court before, always for arrests related to her heroin addiction.

Judge Alex Calabrese, a paternal-looking middle-aged man, asked her to approach the bench.

“Are you ready?” he asked her, looking into her eyes. “Yes,” she responded.

He reached out and took her hand.

“Are you gonna get on the bus? Are you gonna stay on the bus?” he asked, and she nodded. “Yes.”

new york logo 01Calabrese signed the paperwork for her to enter a mandatory detox and rehabilitation center, and she was to leave on a bus from the courtroom to the rehab facility in ten minutes.

“She got picked up last night at 6:30 p.m., and she’ll be on a bus to rehab at 3:30 today,” Calabrese said. “That’s good work.”

The Red Hook Justice Center’s hands-on approach isn’t limited to the courtroom. The building was specifically designed to “humanize” the courthouse experience. Rooms are filled with natural light from big windows, and shatterproof glass replaces bars on the cells where offenders are detained until their trials.

The grounded judge’s bench allows the defendant to be at eye-level with the judge during the trial, and you are more likely to hear Judge Calabrese give out orders for mandated mental health services or anger-management classes than you are to hear a jail sentence.

Where in traditional courts, the defendant may meet with their public attorney just minutes before their trial, at the Justice Center, onsite social workers can meet with the defendant and come up with alternatives to incarceration, like mandated community service or treatment, before the offender meets with a judge.

For young residents of Red Hook, where 70 percent of the neighborhood lives in public housing, the chance to keep their record clean, or clear it, can make a world of difference in the opportunities they’ll have for their future.

“It's not that complicated an idea,” said Julian Adler, the Justice Center’s director. “It's just something that you don't typically see in the criminal justice system.”

And according to a report released Tuesday by the National Center for State Courts, their nontraditional approach is working. The report found that juvenile defendants were 20 percent less likely to re-offend when their cases had been heard at the Justice Center instead of at the Kings County Family Court.

Red Hook Justice Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Red Hook Justice Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The report, funded by the National Institute of Justice, was commissioned in 2009, nine years after the center opened, to gauge the impact of the Justice Center on crime, costs, and incarceration rates. It found that incarceration rates overall were much lower than those downtown (only one percent of sentences involve jail time compared to 15 percent in Kings County court), but the rate of defendants who walk away with just a fine or time served is much lower at the Justice Center.

And if the defendant fails to complete the mandated service or treatment sentence, the average jail sentence can be much longer. Their priority, though, is to avoid incarceration whenever possible.

“With young people, we have a core commitment to resolve things without convictions,” Adler said. “We recognize that an arrest is a moment of crisis and opportunity, and certainly with a young person who doesn't have a record, we try to get them out of the system without the taint of a criminal conviction.”

The court, which hears family, housing, and low-level criminal cases, is focused on finding mostly service-based alternatives to jail time — nearly 80 percent of sentences handed down involve community or social service sentences, compared to 20 percent downtown, the report found.

The center has partnered with community groups like Groundswell, a Red Hook–based mural project, and Red Hook Initiative, which provides neighborhood youth programs, to make sure the required service hours are filled within the community, so the neighborhood can feel the positive impact.

The center also houses a GED program, arts programs, and Youth Court, where low-level juvenile offenders are brought in front of a court of their peers -- including a teen judge, jury, and community and youth advocates that fill the roles of prosecutor and defender. Teen offenders have a chance to tell their story and are asked questions by the jury before being given a sanction, such as a letter of apology or an act of service.

Aaliyah Rogers had just turned 17 when she got arrested for petty larceny and was sent to Youth Court. She had been getting good grades and was participating in a job-readiness program, but family problems at home were causing her to become depressed. The jury focused on all aspects of her life -- did she have positive role models? Did she have a lot of friends? Rogers said the intimate questions helped her to be comfortable.

“They told me they are here to help me, not to judge me, and I really needed that, because I didn’t need to be judged at that time,” Rogers said.

She liked the process so much that she went through the eight-week training program to become a Youth Court member herself, and now gets $100 a month to participate twice a week.

“They kinda turned my life around,” Rogers said about her Youth Court experience. “I met so many different kinds of people, that have a good head on their shoulders and are not letting the struggle bring them down.”

Rogers said she forgets that she gets paid for it sometimes, because for her it’s more about the experience than about getting paid.

“I feel,” she said, “like it’s changed me into a better person.”

DOJ: Sunlight, Lawsuit to Close Miss. School-to-Prison Pipeline

Meridian courthouseThe U.S. Department of Justice says a school-to-prison pipeline that runs through schools, the city police department and juvenile courts threatens children in Meridian, Miss. The school system is negotiating a new set of rules with the DOJ. The city, county, youth court and state of Mississippi, meanwhile, have just gotten hit with a federal lawsuit, and attention that may have already changed their ways.

“We filed this lawsuit because we have to,” said U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, in a public telephone conference on Oct. 25, the day after his department sued the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the county Youth Court judges and Mississippi’s Division of Youth Services claiming that the four agencies work together to ignore children’s due process rights and incarcerate them for minor infractions.

“Children are being incarcerated in the juvenile detention center for days at a time after they are arrested, without a probable cause hearing, by the Youth Court,” said Austin.

schoolppipe_series“We found that children have been incarcerated for being suspended from school for things like dress code violations or talking back to teachers,” he continued.

The DOJ charges that the Meridian police arrest kids on the schools’ word, without looking into probable cause that the young person has committed a crime; and that kids are held sometimes for days without any hearing or meaningful legal help. Once the youth hit probation, they are offered contracts that they have no chance of understanding, the DOJ alleges, nor is there a proper probation hearing.

This pipeline disproportionately swallows up black children and children who have disabilities, the DOJ also said.  Their findings came at the end of an eight-month investigation.

Austin said they brought the findings to the state and local agencies in August 2012 and invited them to negotiations. “Unfortunately all of the defendants decided that they did not want to do this,” he said.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


Lauderdale County Attorney Richard Barry did not immediately return requests for comment on the lawsuit. Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton is out of town.  The two, however, released a letter in August claiming the federal investigation was faulty and that, on privacy grounds, they could not cooperate with the federal government’s request for juvenile court records.

But, said Jackson-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Al Jernigan, “shining a light on this problem has done an awful lot to cause some immediate changes … there have been some substantial changes in police practice and the referrals from the school system.”

Indeed, Meridian mother Stephanie Stringfellow, also on the conference call, said she knew of a case that very morning of a child getting a probable cause hearing.

But overall, she worried that “it’s not going to work like everyone’s been saying on the phone.” She pointed out that if children get suspended from school “that gives them time to get in trouble.”

Since suspension is something that happens under the school roof, not via police and courts, it might come to an earlier resolution than the charges about cops and courts.

The new case deals with what happens to youth from the minute police get involved, through the police, court, and any jail time or probation. Schools are not a part of the new lawsuit.

Instead, the Meridian school system is under federal supervision dating from a 1960s desegregation order. In 2010, the DOJ approached the schools about allegations of a phone call to the police every time there was a physical altercation on campus, and of terminating black employees. The DOJ and the school system are in talks about what kind of orderly, predictable discipline rules should apply on campus. Since 2010, a new superintendent has taken over the system and written a new student handbook.

“What has been proposed is very complex and deals with almost any issue you can imagine,” said Jernigan, explaining that the schools have been cooperative. Though nothing final has been yet published, he said he foresees part of the deal will put monitors into the school system.

The new and old cases are like two puzzle pieces that ideally would fit closely together and make a full picture. But, clarified Austin, “one party [the school district] has decided to sit down and talk to us and move this thing forward in a constructive way. The other side has decided they don’t want to cooperate with us.”

It’s not clear how long it will take for the DOJ, Mississippi, Lauderdale, Meridian and the Youth Court to sit at the same table.   The defendants must now respond to the federal lawsuit, and depending on how and what both sides argue, the case could take months, if not years.

New York to Try Again to ‘Raise the Age’

New York state 16- and 17-year-olds go to adult court, a practice nearly unique to the state. But that may change, as the New York legislature is expected to take another look at proposals to raise the age of criminal responsibility.

“New York State is one of two states that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults no matter what crime they commit … That’s what we’re trying to change,” said Angelo Pinto, the Raise the Age Campaign manager at the Correctional Association of New York, a progressive nonprofit.

CA points to studies that say putting minors through some sort of youth-specific adjudication reduces the chances they will re-appear in court.  By contrast, putting them in the adult system makes them more violent.

But getting a new law is “not a slam dunk by any means,” said state Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of two age-of-responsibility bills this year.

One came ultimately from New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the state’s Sentencing Commission. It would have left youths in the adult court system, but given under-18s a special juvenile status that comes with youth-tailored treatment and sanctions.

The other would have simply put all cases involving under-18s in Family Court.

Neither got a vote, though , slow going and several years of trying are the norm for many bills. Lentol plans to re-file his Youth Court bill. The Chief Judge’s bill will reappear as well, as may some new bills.

Pinto said CA wants to see a bill that’s broad and comprehensive, and is working on a position ahead of the next legislative session, which starts in January 2012.

But Lentol expects opposition on at least two fronts. First, he predicted some groups, maybe criminal justice organizations, might argue 16- and 17-year-olds belong where they are, in adult court.

“There are children going around committing crimes, let the truth be told,” said Lentol, “and so there are those who think that the best way to handle it is to handle it through the criminal justice system and not the juvenile justice system.”

But he rejects that argument, saying youths do things that they may not do if they are older, and may not deserve an adult felony conviction on their record.

Second, juvenile services are more intensive than adult courts, and even if they pay off in the long run, there’s still the question of who would have to pay for new youth services now.  New York’s counties are afraid it could be them.

“On the merits of the issue, we would concur,” said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York Association of Counties. The present policy of incarceration rather than rehabilitation makes little sense, he said, but “we have very serious concerns about implementation of this change in public policy.”

The counties of New York, especially the rural counties, he said, are worried about an unfunded mandate: orders from the state to provide more services, but no more money to do it.

Though they would pay for fewer adult services, the cost of juvenile services for counties would increase.  And the higher price tag wouldn’t be just for the capital cost of courts, but for social services, housing, probation, the sheriff’s resources, public defenders and mental health care.

“It’s hard to quantify it, it is in the tens of millions of dollars,” Acquario said.

“It [the money] has to come from the state,” he argued. “We think a fair amount of it should come from the judiciary budget.”

And it’s not quite clear where Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo stands. Pinto said CA is asking for his support.

Early next year, the governor and the state judiciary will publish their draft budgets, and members of the legislature will start filing bills for their roughly six-month session.

“Stay tuned,” said Lentol.

Photo by wadester16 | Flickr


Meridian Struggles with School-to-Prison Allegations

This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity

Lionel Townsend will turn 14 in September and a few months after that he will be able to return to school, ending a year of exile.

Lionel admits he got into fights multiple times at Magnolia Middle School. When he was charged with vandalizing a school bus security camera, he was booted from school. He fought again in a community day program. The county Youth Court eventually put him on probation and an order to stay at home with an ankle monitor.

But the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is alleging the juvenile justice system is so faulty it amounts to a “school-to-prison pipeline” in the Townsends’ home of Meridian.

“If you do wrong, you got to pay,” insisted Lionel’s mother, Ella Townsend, speaking in the living room of the home she shares with her mother, Lionel and four of the boy’s siblings. Lionel listens quietly, a skinny boy, who grins when attention is turned to him, or he’s teased about the sparkly blue earring studded in his ear. “But “that was harsh punishment,” she said, “I feel like they were sort of out of order.”

Townsend says her son’s ankle monitor was so sensitive it went off if he went in the back yard.  The young man is rid of it now, but not before he gouged off the speaker, causing what Townsend said the court assessed as $1,500 in damage.

She worries if Lionel makes another mistake, he will end up in prison with adults, where he will learn the criminal trade.

The Justice Department says it has probable cause to believe the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County routinely and repeatedly incarcerate children for school disciplinary infractions, as outlined in an Aug. 10 open letter, at the end of an eight-month investigation. Their letter is addressed to the city and county, the county's two Youth Court judges, as well as the state Division of Youth Services, but not the Meridian school system.

The letter said infractions such as defiance, disrespect, dress code violations or cursing led to a police ride to the county Youth Court. City police in closed-door interviews called themselves a “taxi service” from school to jail, the DOJ writes. “MPD officers may subjectively believe that they are acting appropriately,” reads the letter, but the DOJ argues the police are wrong to automatically arrest children referred by the schools, instead of investigating and determining probable cause themselves. The police, they charge, do not assess “whether the alleged conduct qualifies as an arrestable offense.”

Once in custody, the Youth Court fails to give children speedy hearings, the DOJ says, by holding court only two days per week, thus on weekends and holidays pushing some children over a 48-hour threshold. Furthermore, “children and their guardians consistently report that they are not always appointed an attorney for detention or adjuration hearings,” reads the letter, adding an allegation that the public defender in the court does not provide “meaningful or effective representation.”

In cases of probation, children are inappropriately signing probation contracts that they do not comprehend, says the DOJ, and there “is no evidence that Lauderdale County and DYS [Mississippi Division of Youth Services] ever provide constitutionally required probable cause hearings.”  DYS youth counselors — the DOJ calls them “probation officers” — in practice have “absolute discretion” to determine if there is a probation violation and what the consequence will be, according to allegations.

The federal agency also claims that African-American children are disproportionately suspended or expelled and that Meridian children who have disabilities are expelled or given long suspensions at a rate almost seven times higher than the state as a whole, though it does not quote detailed statistics.

The DOJ said it sought Youth Court records to supplement site visits, and interviews with police, DYS staff and community members. They were denied access locally on privacy grounds. In a written comment, a Mississippi attorney general spokesperson explained, “we have said that the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) will cooperate in any lawful manner with the DOJ investigation.  However, state law, including Mississippi Code Section 43-21-261, prohibits the AOC from providing to DOJ copies of confidential youth court records without a court order.”

But the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County reject the charges, accusing the federal agency of basing their allegations on only “a few” cases and “unsubstantiated” claims, in a letter they wrote to the DOJ, which was released in response to media queries to the police and the Youth Court.

The findings of the DOJ are “one-sided and reflect, in our opinion, the inexperience and unprofessionalism of your investigating representatives as to basic criminal procedure,” write Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton and attorney for Lauderdale County, J. Richard Barry.

Youth Court judges Veldore Young and Frank Coleman “categorically deny any systematic violation of any child’s constitutional rights and have faithfully followed the laws of this State and will continue to protect the confidentiality of our children’s youth court records,” reads the attorneys’ Aug. 23 response.

They suggest the DOJ’s head civil rights lawyer is already biased against Meridian, accusing Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez of running to the media instead of talking with judges; and of publicly criticizing Meridian schools.

They say the DOJ letter contains “outright untruths where it is stated that those judges would not cooperate” with the investigation by turning over juvenile court records. The attorneys say the judges do not have the legal right to hand over those papers.

After numerous requests for comment, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice wrote in an email that, “protecting the constitutional rights of youth is a top priority of the Justice Department. The department’s Civil Rights Division is tasked with ensuring and acting to protect the civil rights of children. If we find that a school district or juvenile justice system is depriving youth of their rights, we will not hesitate to act.

New School Year

Last year, Alvin Taylor was hired as Meridian school superintendent after several rapid changes of leadership. Much of the top administration turned over at the same time, he said, and his new team brought in new policies and procedures.

“I can’t speak on what happened before June 1, 2011,” said Taylor, referring to the day his work started.

Taylor’s 2011-2012 school year student handbooks lay out dozens of rule infractions and the punishments. Police only get involved, Taylor said, for three infractions named by Mississippi state law: weapons, drugs or serious violent acts.

A schoolyard fight is not considered a serious violent act, Taylor said, but gang fights or assaulting a teacher for example, is.

When school staff determine one of those three infractions has happened, said Taylor, a call to police must first be approved by himself or the assistant superintendent of student services.

He said less than 1 percent of youth get arrested in a given year in his roughly 6,200-student system. There are also around 60 or so expulsions every year, he said. Taylor said that expulsion rate is lower than average, according to his research.

As for the DOJ allegations that children who have disabilities — including learning disabilities — are disproportionally ousted from school, Taylor said, “all those accusations stem from 2009. And I can’t speak on what they did back then. I can tell you that’s not the situation now.”

In 2009, Meridian High School enrolled 1,625 students, according to the latest figures available in a federal Department of Education database. The same database says that among 205 Meridian High School students who have disabilities, there were 145 instances of children getting more than one out-of-school suspension.  The student population overall was 86.8 percent African-American, and black students represented 96 percent of all out-of-school suspensions and 100 percent of the 10 reported expulsions.

Long-Smoldering Fire

The DOJ received the very first complaints about Meridian in 2005 from NAACP activist Randle Jennings. He was surprised when the city cut funding to a baseball program for at-risk youth he ran and considered very successful. He started looking at schools and asked why more than 90 percent of the teachers were white, given that there were five historically black colleges or universities within one hundred miles, and more than 90 percent of Meridian's students were black?

“We realized something was going on,” said Jennings, now the county NAACP education chair.  “We smelled smoke,” but did not have an explanation for it. He sent the data about teacher and student demographics to the DOJ, and admits he did not know what they might find.

Five years later, in May 2010, the federal Department of Justice sent a letter to Lauderdale County’s and Meridians’ official attorneys. They were asking for records about school discipline and police involvement in schools. In the following months, the DOJ also participated in at least two public meetings where they asked area residents to come lodge their complaints about school discipline and the law.

Jennings is sure a pipeline runs through Meridian. “We have a concern for our children, especially the next generation because we have seen two generations be destroyed … [we] systematically need a plan so our children aren’t shoved in that pipeline.”

Lauderdale County juvenile inmates used to land in a detention center on the edge of town. However, it’s closed now and since the beginning of 2012, minors have been bused to a center some 70 miles away in Rankin County. Lauderdale’s center had been the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over conditions of incarceration.

Get Rid of the Problem

The Love City Fellowship, a church in Meridian, hosted a public meeting on school discipline and the law in August 2010. The church, the DOJ and the Southern Poverty Law Center invited parents to come to the afternoon meeting to talk about suspensions and arrests from city schools. Some church members are still collecting stories from friends and neighbors and urging parents to talk to the DOJ.

“Some of the rules that are in place do not put the child in mind first,” said Senior Pastor Lamorris Richardson. “Instead of having to deal with the problem and find a solution, it’s more ’get rid of the problem.’”

The city school system is separately in a dispute with the DOJ that is very closely related to the newly-announced allegations against the city and county. The school system is a party in a 1960s-era federal desegregation order. The DOJ reopened that case in 2010 in an effort to investigate the discipline complaints and other complaints that the district was allegedly unfairly terminating African-American educators.

In that case, besides asking for data, the DOJ asked for access to visit schools and interview staff in 2010. The school district initially rejected those DOJ requests, and the DOJ responded by asking the federal court to order access and document release. According to court filings, the school argued the demand to visit and interview staff and law enforcement officers is too broad and amounts to “fishing” for information, as does a DOJ request to inspect databases and documents on site at schools. That battle over visits, interviews and inspections is ongoing in court and forms the background to the DOJ’s August letter and threat to sue the city and county.

Pastor Richardson said his city needs a school board picked by the community. Now it is named by the mayor and confirmed by city council. Though, according to Elizabeth McDonald, spokeswoman for the school district, the board members each represent different areas of the city.

The board is currently made up of three whites and two blacks.

“This city has not moved in how many decades? … Five decades?” asked pastor Betty Alford, also of Love City Fellowship, comparing treatment of African-Americans now to the 1960s.

Richardson added, “No community, in 2012, should be still dealing with practices that applies [only] to a certain group, a certain community where kids rights are not being protected in school. We should be way past this kind of bias.”

But Meridian children like Lionel are out of Superintendent Taylor’s hands. Once a child is expelled, the child is not a “student” and the school board is not obligated to instruct him.

That being said, the schools, in partnership with the city and local groups, will this year start a pilot program for expelled students that provides character and academic education, as well as technical options. It will have 18 slots and is set to start in September. That will be the only full-time educational opportunity for students expelled from school.

As for Lionel, Ella is teaching him at home until he goes back to school, though she said it is not enough. “I can do stuff from what I know, but I’m not a trained teacher,” she said. “He needs to eat his material, he needs to study and learn.”

Click here for other examples of the school to prison pipeline around the country.

Youth Courts 101: A How-to Video Primer and Manual

Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City gives an excellent overview of how youth courts work in this video interview with Leonard Witt of the They are completely teen driven with teens as judges, attorneys and juries who hear actual cases either referred by the police or the courts. Each teen judge, attorney or juror gets 30-hours of training and has to pass a "bar exam" to be able to serve.

In the youth courts Berman's center helps oversee, the kids running the courts come from a variety of backgrounds, so the offenders are being judged by their real peers. In fact, kids who once came before the court often come back later to serve as judges, attorneys and jurors, so Berman says it can be “a life changing experience.”

Kids sent to the court have already admitted guilt and are at the mercy of their peers to design the sanctions that will be administered.

The kids ask great questions, Berman says, and have “great BS detectors.” They listen to the individual cases and then the jury delivers a sanction that, according to Berman, tends to emphasize restoration.

The outcome might be a letter of apology, public service work or links to anger management. It turns peer pressure on its head, he says, making it a positive rather than a negative and that is the nub of the youth court idea.

Watch the video below for more details. You can download the manual on Recommended Practices for Youth Courts published by the Center for Court Innovation.

September is National Youth Court Month

Youth court, which provides an alternative for kids who are first time offenders, is being celebration nationally this month, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

In most youth courts, offenders are facing a misdemeanor or status offense for crimes like theft or vandalism. Youth court provides them with a network of community and juvenile justice experts to respond to their problems.

If your organization has planned activities, we’d love to hear about them. Email me at