Could community courts cut low-level crime in our cities?

Advocates credit the model with reduced crime levels in New York

Thanksgiving is celebrated at Red Hook Community Justice Centre, Brooklyn’s community court

Thanksgiving is celebrated at Red Hook Community Justice Centre, Brooklyn’s community court

Mon, Jan 27, 2014, 01:00

On a seemingly ordinary Monday in November 2012, New York City experienced a watershed moment when not a single violent crime was reported to police. It made headlines across the world.

There are those who believe the city’s growing system of community courts, and their pragmatic approach to reducing recidivism, has had a lot to do with it.

Similar ideas to revolutionise our own local justice system were drawn up by the National Crime Council in a 2007 but quickly shelved in the looming shadow of economic and political crisis.

As Ireland slipped into financial freefall, the document gathered dust even as the very approach it championed continued to achieve success in other jurisdictions.

This Wednesday, a conference in Dublin will examine the possibility of breathing new life into the concept, which has attracted the support of politicians, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Retail Excellence Ireland and the Restaurant Association of Ireland.

On the same day, the Oireachtas Justice Committee will hear from many of those addressing the seminar, including practitioners from both New York and the UK.

What fuels interest in the concept is a conviction that changing how we deal with low-level crime in city communities can ultimately benefit everyone. It’s a message David Brennan, chief executive of the Dublin City Business Association (DCBA) and the main driving force behind this week’s conference, is keen to push.

“We have involved ourselves in the good governance of the city for the last 40 years. Our members on a daily basis deal with crime, anti-social behaviour, drunkenness and public disorder,” he says.

“We are looking for change and reform of the system as it currently is and we believe that it will benefit all aspects of society. If people regain control of their own lives you will have less cost in the prison and court services and all of the other services involved.

“I do believe this could be set up. It will take some time but I do believe that if we could get a community court, a one-stop shop, one venue where everything is connected . . . it has to be tried.”

Another keen proponent is David Stanton, the chair of the justice committee, who has visited New York to watch the system in action.

There are about 40 such courts in the US. In New York, which has courts in midtown Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem (a fifth is now being established), the system has been credited with reducing the once infamous levels of crime, especially in Manhattan.

Such is the enthusiasm that last month Mayor Bill de Blasio used the Red Hook Community Justice Centre, Brooklyn’s community court, to unveil the city’s new police commissioner William J Bratton, in place of the traditional City Hall.

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