In the early 1990s, the heart of the country's largest city was virtually off-limits to tourists and even many residents. Shoplifting, robbery, strip joints and prostitution proliferated in the dozens of seamy city blocks around Times Square in Manhattan.
Twenty years later, the high-crime era is just a bad memory. Crowds of theater-goers fill the area, and bustling shops cater to tourists and residents.
One of the main reasons for the transformation is the Midtown Community Court (MCC), which has not only spurred a more aggressive campaign to reduce the non-violent “quality of life” crimes that pervaded the area, but pioneered a different approach to offenders that emphasized rehabilitation as much as law enforcement.
A pedestrian walks past a Times Square strip club in 1998. (AP Photo/Michael Schmelling)
The premise of the court was simple: don't send people to jail for low-level crimes. Thanks to the establishment of special counseling services as part of the court, certain offenders could serve out their sentences in community services, or receive counseling or substance abuse treatment facilities instead of a jail term.
In what was then considered a “new way” of thinking about criminal justice, the Midtown Community Court acted as a service provider positioned to help “clients” get access to resources they wouldn't be able to get on their own.
Since it was established in 1993, the Court has served as a model for dozens of similar alternative or diversionary courts around the country.
The court, which handles about 10,000 cases a year, reports that defendants adhere to their sentences at a rate of 75 percent for community service—the highest in the city.
Neighborhood crime has plummeted. Prostitution arrests dropped 56 percent and illegal vending was down 24 percent. Since its establishment, the MCC has expanded into other areas, such as an adolescent diversion program for 16-18 year old defendants; and a “human trafficking” court which assists commercial sex trade workers.
Cars and pedestrians stream through a mostly strip club-free Times Square in 2007. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin)
While it has been instrumental in making New York a safer place, the MCC is unlikely to write itself out of a role. The city's changing public safety needs and character will present major challenges in the Court's next 20 years.
The Crime Report spent a day watching the MCC in action earlier this month. What follows are vignettes of conversations with judges, attorneys, court staff and offenders during the visit, illustrated with a portfolio of photographs by TCR Deputy Managing Editor Graham Kates.
Courtney Bryan, 37, Director
Bryan has been the director of MCC for 5 years.
“Its not just thinking of how to adjudicate cases and what you're doing within your own four walls, but thinking how to really push the agenda as far as using these courts as laboratories. The real value of creating these courts is if they are utilized well, serving the people who are coming through our courts and the neighborhood, while contributing something valuable to the larger criminal justice system.
“The big issue that I think we have been the most successful in tackling was prostitution. It was really only a few years ago that we embraced the concept that most of the women and occasionally men arrested for prostitution-related offenses are victims. It has been a real shift (to treat) these women as victims. Before they were arrested and went through the system as perps. But that is not the case: most of the women are in very violent relationships–and are controlled by pimps. They have lived a lifetime of trauma and victimization. And that is what really our programming needs to be addressing.”
Anthony Rivera, 48, Client
Anthony Rivera was on parole when he started attending fatherhood classes at MCC. He has two daughters.
“I speak to the guys who are starting the new cycles for classes in fatherhood programs at the court. Every four weeks they start a new program for the fathers that are mandated to take these courses. I come here and I just try to give them a little hope. And I let them know that I sat in those same chairs that you are sitting here right now. And if you stick with the program and you try to listen to what they are saying. Don't talk too much while you are here.
“This place will take you further than you think it will take you. I'm the prime example. Its three years after I graduated from my program (fatherhood classes) and I'm still here. Now I work at for Times Square Alliance—the busiest place in the city. I don't get into trouble anymore. I stick to my job and. anytime I feel like there is something wrong, the people that work at MCC are a phone call away. I have six phone numbers of people from this agency. But they don't just help me with my life, we also do things together. We go to baseball games. We went to Citi Field. At Christmas time they have a party for the participants in the programs. I bring my daughters. They give you gifts for your kids. It's beautiful….”
Hon. Felicia Mennin, Presiding Judge
MCC has had five judges since its founding in 1993, Judge Mennin has been presiding judge for two years.
“As a visiting judge at Midtown Community Court, I would come up from 100 Centre Street (Manhattan Criminal Court) and preside over some cases. Then I was transferred here because I think they knew I would be a good fit. There is a real philosophy here at MCC of diversion and working to prevent future contact with the criminal justice. We have a very effective array of qualified professionals counselors that support the defendants through the process.
“We believe that is better that they try and fix themselves then the criminal justice system fixing them. I think nobody else had the will or resources to work with people entering the criminal justice system. People in the system realized that if you keep giving (offenders) the minimum sentence they will just cycle back again and again. We are trying to provide the skills they need to change the cycles of their lives. I see some people once every week or every two weeks. I develop a personal relationship with, and can encourage them to finish their programs.”
Russell Novack, Attorney, Legal Aid Society
Novack has been an attorney for over 30 years, with stints in city government. He has been lead attorney at MCC for a decade.
“Back when I started as an attorney, we were just putting people away—people who were struggling from drug addiction and other health issues. It didn't make sense. Then we started talking about how we could help people get help, get a job and live a life. Drug courts, specialty courts like this one, started to make sense. We could keep people out of jail, or at least have a way to try and do it. The court has good energy; we had people living in boxes, heroin addicts. No one would touch them; they had no chance of any treatment or help. There was no other institution that wanted to get involved. We were lucky that there were judges up high that were interested in these types of things.
But all the stakeholders need to have a buy in, that's always the challenge. We can't have a “lock'em up” mentality like we have had for so long. I can only hope that things will continue to get better.”
Editors Note: For an assessment of the MCC on its 20 year anniversary by the head of New York's Center for Court Innovation, please see HERE.
Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.