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

Advocates credit the model with reduced crime levels in New York

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.

De Blasio said Red Hook “epitomises” his belief that the system could bring “community and public safety professionals together to keep us all safe”. He is the fourth consecutive mayor to support the programme.

"Midtown Manhattan, Central Park, Grand Central Station and Times Square were all no-go areas and that has all changed now because of the work of the community courts. They call them problem-solving courts," Mr Stanton says.

Pragmatic approach
He believes there is a general interest in Government and that while community courts are not a guarantee of an easy ride for offenders, they offer a pragmatic approach that often responds to low level crime with community service and interaction. "We want to see if we can get a national conversation on it. Before you do anything you must discuss it and inform people about it."

Julius Lang, a director of the Court of Innovation in New York, an umbrella body, is due to address this week's Dublin conference. "The community court is a very local response to local problems; the planners seek to understand the problems their communities have," he says.

“The idea of a community court is that in a specific place there might be a concentration of lower-level crime that is higher than in other places.

“The system focuses on that place and a judge takes all of these cases rather than having them generally assigned and has an understanding of a community context where they are taking place and an understanding of the sort of problems that the people who are committing these crimes have.”

In the US it is generally held up as a success story but some caution against trying to create a carbon copy. A community court in the US can seem benevolent compared to the conventional legal system, often characterised as an obdurate dispenser of justice where incarceration is key.

In Europe the difference is not so stark; courts are often lenient when dealing with lesser offences. In that context, where might community courts fit in?

Lessons can be learned from the UK experience, where a pilot project in north Liverpool was closed last year after a decade in operation, partly because the government had trouble understanding what it was paying for.

"The history of the community court in England and Wales has not been the runaway success it has been in the US," concedes Phillip Bowen, a director of the Centre for Justice Innovation in the UK. He is another key speaker at the upcoming conference and will address this grey area.

“Part of my frustration with the closure was that that was kind of the point, to invest money into this system. To say ‘it’s kind of expensive’, well yes but that’s the point of the model.”

The community court ethos was also introduced to 10 other regular courts in the UK but with a reduction in central funding in 2008, some of these have also fallen by the wayside.

Mr Bowen has not given up. He explains that central to acceptance of the system as an alternative approach is better understanding. The key points are that, unlike typical courts, the community model should have an ingrained relationship with its immediate surroundings and that those who appear before judges should have more time to explain their crimes in the context of their lives and environment. Mutual understanding of the issues and problems can heal troubled communities.

“These things can be grafted onto the existing system,” argues Bowen.

As Julius Lang puts it, the community court model “speaks to those who are concerned about problems that offenders have and also to concerns about holding people accountable”.

What is a community court?

Put simply, community courts place the court at the heart of the community, approaching problems in their local context.

They attempt to understand the issues and engage with offenders rather than simply deferring to the classic ‘convict and incarcerate’ approach.

Dealing with less serious offences, the model emphasises treatment, understanding and community service.

Solicitors and prosecutors remain central although there are opportunities to avoid criminal records and prison in a way that should, in theory, benefit society by reducing repeat offending and educating offenders by making them engage with the community.

A single judge deals with every case and, while approaches vary, community courts generally employ swift processing on the back of a guilty plea.

In Ireland, the 2007 National Crime Commission recommended their introduction, starting with a Dublin pilot.

The types of crimes covered would include general public order offences such as intoxication, disorderly conduct, threatening and abusive behaviour, minor assaults, drug use, theft and criminal damage.

Services available as solutions would include addiction counselling, education courses, social services, parenting programmes and anger management courses.

In Midtown Manhattan, the first US project, offenders contributed community work valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Crime rates dropped, with prostitution arrests down by 56 per cent.

The Yarra community court in Melbourne, Australia found that between 2007 and 2009 rates of recidivism dropped by 7 per cent. The system has also been adopted in South Africa and Canada.