How the Justice System Can Transform NYC’s 'Murder Capital”


It has been a head-spinning couple of years for those of us who work in criminal justice in New York City.

Not long ago, if you asked the question “who is responsible?” in criminal justice circles, most people would think you were asking about who deserves the lion's share of credit for the “New York miracle” that reduced the number of murders from a high of more than 2,200 in 1990 to less than 335 in 2013.

Of course, this is no longer the dominant story about criminal justice in this city.

Today, asking the question “who is responsible?” at a criminal justice conference would summon angry finger-pointing rather than warm pats on the back.

The past two years have been dominated by names like Kalief Browder and Eric Garner—along with growing concern about Rikers Island, the sprawling and problem-ridden jail complex, and about some of the tactics employed by the New York Police Department. Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, is in many ways the fulcrum between these two competing New York City narratives—one of triumph and one of despair.

DNAinfo recently called Brownsville the “murder capital” of New York. The neighborhood ranked dead last (out of 69 communities) for per capita homicide rate. In a 2010 survey of 800 local residents conducted by my agency, 80 percent of respondents identified guns, gangs, drugs, and assaults as the top community problems.

So crime remains one of the defining features of Brownsville.

Another defining feature, unsurprisingly, is the prevalence of incarceration.

According to the Justice Mapping Center, which specializes in using online maps to communicate justice challenges, the state of New York spends $40 million a year incarcerating people just from Brownsville. And these numbers don't include the Brownsville residents who are held at Rikers Island each year.

The criminal justice system is not an abstraction in Brownsville: It is a daily fact of life. Thousands of local residents are under probation or parole supervision. And police are a visible presence.

It is safe to say that familiarity has not led to fondness. The justice system enjoys depressingly low levels of community support in Brownsville. To give just one example, the community survey conducted by my agency found that only 16 percent of local residents characterized their relationship with police as positive.

How might things be turned around in Brownsville? What might we do differently in an effort to enhance public safety, to reduce the use of incarceration, and to improve public perceptions of justice?

We know that safety cannot be produced by the justice system alone.

After all, our safest neighborhoods, whether rich or poor, don't operate like police states, with officers lurking on every corner. As Jane Jacobs articulated in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a crucial element of neighborhood safety is the availability of responsible “eyes on the street” and the willingness of neighbors to enforce local social norms and address conditions of disorder.

As currently constructed, the criminal justice system does precious little to encourage social cohesion in high-crime neighborhoods. Indeed, as we have seen in Brownsville, a great deal of conventional practice (over-aggressive enforcement and the misuse of incarceration in particular) tends to undermine the very elements that are crucial to healthy neighborhoods.

That's the bad news. The good news is that in recent years a new set of reforms have emerged with the potential to reduce offending, reengineer the relationship between the justice system and the public, and help activate a neighborhood's capacity to help produce safety for itself.

One such reform is the community justice center model that we are attempting to implement in Brownsville.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center will be an official branch of the New York State Court System, handling minor offenses from the local precinct. Rather than relying on short-term jail as a response to crimes like shoplifting, vandalism and minor drug possession, the Justice Center judge will have access to an expansive menu of alternatives, including drug treatment, job training, and counseling.

The goal will be to change court outcomes for thousands of Brownsville residents each year.

Beyond a problem-solving courtroom, the Justice Center will also be home to an array of youth development and crime prevention programs designed to serve everyone in the community, regardless of whether they have a court case. These include a teen-led youth court offering leadership training to local young people, an anti-violence program that engages local residents in spreading a message of peace, and the Belmont Revitalization Project, which seeks to beautify and redesign an area that has been a magnet for crime.

The Brownsville Community Justice Center has been endorsed by the Brooklyn District Attorney, the Chief Judge of New York, the Commissioner of the New York Police Department, and the Mayor of New York City, among others.

One reason these officials have signed on to the idea of community justice in Brownsville is that they have seen it work before in Red Hook—another Brooklyn neighborhood that has endured similar challenges. According to independent evaluators, the Red Hook Community Justice Center has succeeded in reducing both recidivism and the use of jail while changing public attitudes toward the justice system.

We are still a couple of years away from fully realizing the vision of a community justice center for Brownsville. The project has to go through the city's land-use review process before construction work can begin on a state-of-the-art courthouse.

But with any luck, Brownsville will soon be a living example of a new kind of New York miracle—one that not only reduces crime and incarceration, but engages the community and bolsters the legitimacy of justice in a place where it has been badly tarnished for generations.

Greg Berman is the executive director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City and the author of Trial & Error in Criminal Justice Reform. He welcomes comments from readers.

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