NYC's Midtown Community Court: 20 Years of Testing New Ideas

Greg Berman

Greg Berman

Twenty years ago, on West 54th Street in New York City, a long-dormant courthouse was given new life and a new mission: to reduce both crime and incarceration by linking misdemeanor defendants to community restitution projects and social services instead of short-term jail sentences.

It was also given a new name: the Midtown Community Court.

The Court's mission arose from the realities of the early 1990s, when low-level crime—shoplifting, fare-beating, vandalism and the like—seemed a permanent feature of New York City. Lacking other options, judges at the time often had to choose between sentencing defendants to a few days of jail time and nothing at all.

Either choice failed to impress upon victims, the community, or defendants that these offenses were being taken seriously.

In an effort to address this problem, a team of government, civic and business leaders, sparked by Herb Sturz and led by John Feinblatt, came together to forge a new response to minor offending that emphasized alternatives to jail wherever possible.

I was fortunate to join the team not long after planning for the Midtown Community Court began. What I received was an education in both criminal justice theory and implementation.

From the start, the Midtown Community Court sought to test new ideas.

The Court was inspired, at least in part, by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's groundbreaking “Broken Windows” theory, which argued that if minor offenses and local disorder are not addressed, they will create an environment that encourages more serious crime.

Over time, other ideas would come to influence the operations of the Midtown Community Court as well.

One such idea is the concept of “procedural justice.” Originally articulated by Yale University Law School professor Tom Tyler, procedural justice suggests that defendants are more likely to obey the law (and court orders) if they believe that they have been treated fairly and with respect.

Building on these theories, the core business of the Midtown Community Court is adjudicating misdemeanor offenses that occur in and around Times Square.

In a typical year, the Court handles about 10,000 such cases. Rather than simply processing these cases as quickly as possible, the Midtown Court attempts to craft more meaningful outcomes for defendants. In doing so, Midtown judge Felicia Mennin has a number of tools at her disposal, including an on-site clinic staffed by case managers, social workers and community service supervisors.

She also has access to technology and research assistance to enable her to track compliance and measure impact in ways that many courts cannot.

The Court's in-house analytical capacity also allows it to identify gaps in services and respond to emerging needs. At the moment, the Court is serving as a laboratory for several new initiatives conceived by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.

The first is an effort to rethink how the justice system responds to human trafficking. Midtown handles hundreds of prostitution cases each year, many involving women who have been trafficked.

The challenges faced by this population are enormous: histories of trauma and substance abuse and domestic violence are common. In response, the Midtown Court has worked with an array of government and non-profit agencies to assemble specialized programming designed to help women escape life on the streets. This includes a unique partnership with the Museum of Modern Art that encourages participants to use art to express challenging issues in their lives.

Another new initiative at Midtown focuses on 16-and 17-year old defendants. New York is one of just two states that treats such young defendants as adults, processing their cases in criminal court rather than family court. The potential consequences for a young person are enormous, including being incarcerated alongside adult offenders and receiving a criminal conviction that can negatively impact future prospects in terms of school, housing and employment.

At Midtown, these adolescent defendants are linked to age-appropriate services instead of being treated like any other adult defendant.

Midtown's work with adolescent defendants and victims of trafficking has served as a model for courts around the state that are pursuing similar goals.

Indeed, the reach of the Midtown Community Court has always stretched far beyond 54th Street. Since it opened, Midtown has served as an inspiration for community courts both near (Red Hook, Harlem, Brownsville, Newark and the Bronx) and far (Hartford, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Melbourne, Australia).

Twenty years since it began, the Midtown Community Court continues to have real value for a number of different constituencies.

For thousands of defendants each year, Midtown represents a chance not just to avoid jail but to get their lives back on track by taking advantage of services like job training and drug treatment. For the people who live and work nearby, Midtown has become a valued neighborhood asset that helps address conditions of disorder, including cleaning local parks and painting over graffiti for small business owners.

And for criminal justice officials in New York, Midtown serves as an ongoing laboratory for innovation, a place where new ideas and new theories aren't just studied and debated but actually implemented to test their value.

Greg Berman is the author of Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration (forthcoming from Quid Pro Books) and the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation[s8] , a public-private partnership that helps to oversee the Midtown Community Court and other demonstration projects. He welcomes comments from readers.

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