From Brooklyn to Madison, a criminal justice alternative gets its legs with $600K boost

MADISON, Wis. — An often-discussed, long-planned sweeping criminal justice reform in Dane County has moved a step closer to reality with a $600,000 federal grant to fund a pilot program over the next four years.

The community court—based on a nationally-renowned model in a southwestern Brooklyn neighborhood—seeks to build on initiatives already underway in Dane County such as its community restorative court, deferred prosecution unit, and drug treatment court.

The grant represents years of work on the county’s part to bring a community justice center to fruition. Its goal, at its core, is to have one location where low-level and non-violent offenders are diverted away from incarceration and into data-informed, alternative programs that seek to resolve root inequities and drivers of crime.

“If you’re sending someone to prison and not taking full advantage of the opportunity to have a positive impact, you’re just delaying another victimization,” Dane County district attorney Ismael Ozanne said.

From a Brooklyn neighborhood, a new approach blossomed nationwide

While officials say the county’s community court pilot program won’t be an identical replica of the model motivating it, the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn has long set a standard for programs seeking to replicate its results nationwide.

The Center brings the traditional elements of criminal, civic, and family courts under one roof and into one courtroom. There, a judge helps tailor-make an approach fitting the case that ends with a person being diverted into the appropriate community programs, resources, or service providers–rather than jail.

The center includes youth programs, educational resources, social workers, and more; the data shows it’s working. A 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice found it lowered rates of recidivism. The Center’s own data points to a 20% drop in reoffending among juveniles and 10% drop among adults; fewer than 1% of cases are sent to jail after arraignment.

“Community justice centers seek to respond to crime through a combined strategy of holding individuals accountable for their behavior, such as through meaningful community service,” a report prepared for Dane County in 2021 read, “While offering individuals help with a range of social service needs that address the underlying issues that led to their criminal behavior.”

That means a holistic approach to get at and solve the root causes of crime in a person’s life, Ozanne said.

“Whether that’s mental health, whether that’s addiction, whether that’s housing, or education, what is causing the person to come to the criminal justice system? And if we can get to that and address that need, we’re likely not to see the person in the criminal justice system again,” Ozanne said.

“In a sense, it’s a way to connect people with resources.”

Community court models tend to evolve over time, sometimes starting with one location and expanding, the report explained. Red Hook’s model features a number of locations in a variety of neighborhoods.

There’s more than 60 models now around the United States, and several more internationally. They’re tailored for their communities: Spokane’s, for instance, is located in their library.

In Nevada, Reno also began in their county library, reopened in their local homeless shelter due to Covid, and have since moved back to the library. In Dallas, the South Dallas Community Court found its home in the MLK Community Center which had already long served as a central hub for community resources.

A system to reform Dane County’s justice, years in the making

The county’s first interactions with the Center started nearly a full decade ago in 2013, when a report had exposed Dane County as having some of the most pronounced racial disparities in the country.

Two years later, a number of Dane County officials and community leaders took an exploratory trip to the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

The following year in 2016, leaders of the Center came to them: the Center’s Judge Alex Calabrese along with other staff met with Dane County leaders to discuss how implementing such a project here could happen. In 2020, county officials began conversations with community members, taking one of its first physical steps toward actualizing a Center of their own.

Finally, in early 2021, the county board entered into a contract with the Center to put together a report with recommendations of how to implement the project in Dane County. Released in September last year and based on county data and interviews with a number of local stakeholders, the report laid out dozens of recommendations for how to develop the approach in a way that matched Dane County’s needs.

Money has also been budgeted toward the project over the last two years. The Center’s contract used $100,000 from the county’s budget; county executive director Joe Parisi has set aside funds in his most recent budget released last week for a community court coordinator as well.

What’s next: The specifics, as we know them now

The federal grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance opens the door for the county to start defining what its community court (also called a community justice center in the past) will look like, building on the years of work already finished.

The grant’s start date is October 2022, but will include an initial six to nine months of meeting with national experts and people with lived experience as part of its planning phase, according to Dane County Criminal Justice Council coordinator Colleen Clark-Bernhardt.

Additionally, Clark-Bernhardt says the grant includes funding for teams to travel to other community courts as well as two stakeholders to travel to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with the Bureau of Justice Assistance and other grant recipients.

They’ve set a goal for the pilot program of 60 cases served in the first year; Ozanne says they want to see a total of about 600 cases served over the 4-year pilot phase. Those cases will be ones that can’t be currently served by the county’s restorative justice court for 17 – 25-year-olds.

Not every case, he noted, may include a full diversion from incarceration–although that is the goal for many.

It’s unlikely, Ozanne said, that the community court would be able to fully replicate the Red Hook Center’s standalone courthouse with its own set of judges and staffers. The goal, instead, is for its location to be easily accessible to Dane County’s existing apparatus of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges—as well as the public.

That might mean its placement could be within or near the Dane County courthouse itself, he noted, but the location is still a matter of discussion and will include a consideration of demographic and offense data.

The goals of the community court, in some senses, are intensely practical. Dane County already includes services for a host of things like immigration, workforce, mental health. But they’re not all in one place and can be difficult to access for those who need the most, Ozanne pointed out.

“The people who really need those, some of them are involved in the criminal justice system.”

The physical impacts of the Red Hook Center are in the small details as well, Ozanne said, such as how their judges sit at eye level with individuals–producing interactions more like conversations than court hearings.

Ultimately, the community court will seek to expand on policies of diversion for offenders, address core racial inequities in the county–all while continuing to serve victims.

“It’s focused on the criminal justice system, but it would not forget victims, and we cannot forget the victim’s voice,” Ozanne said.