From Brooklyn to Badger Rd: New York “Restorative Justice” Experts Share Best Practices with Dane County

    Judge Alex Calabrese speaks to the Dane County Board of Supervisors as Chair Sharon Corrigan looks on.

    Red Hook is a one-square-mile neighborhood of about 12,000 people, nestled between three waterways in southwest Brooklyn. Judge Alex Calabrese recalls the state of that one square mile in 2000:  “This is a community that had an average of 20 murders, over 500 robberies a year, 300 assaults a year…What kind of a justice system do we have when no judge has been out in this community when they have been under siege for all these years?”

    Calabrese became that judge in 2000, when he took the helm as presiding judge at the new Red Hook Community Justice Center, which aims to overcome those statistics and truly engage the citizens of Red Hook in the judicial process.

    Calabrese and Brett Taylor of the Center for Court Innovation visited Madison on June 2 to provide their insight and expertise on restorative justice in meetings with several law enforcement and criminal justice stakeholders, and to share their experience at a special meeting of the County Board. In 2014, Dane County began the Community Restorative Court to “repair harm, reduce risk, and rebuild community” for disputants aged 17-25 on Madison’s south side.  

    Taylor, a staunch legal advocate and Operations Director for the Tribal Justice Exchange, piloted the Red Hook Peacemaking Program in 2013. Peacemaking allows peacemakers, Red Hook residents with a diverse array of life experiences, and disputants to find the best solution to resolve a conflict. Peacemakers come up with innovative approaches to restorative justice that have lasting impacts on disputants and the Greater Red Hook Community. Taylor remembers, “After our first year, we started getting community referrals through word of mouth…it says a lot that people are starting to recognize that we can resolve [conflicts] in a way that is meaningful to us.”

    Today, 40 peacemakers preside over dozens of cases every year. Judge Calabrese is impressed by the swift and overwhelming success of the initiative. “You have community members who feel that they have been respected by the court to handle these cases,” he says. “[The court system] is saying, ‘not only can you handle this, but you can do a better job than we can, and that is why we hand it over.’ Court and community coming together is a wonderful thing to have.”  Out of 88 cases referred to the Red Hook Peacemaking Program last year, only one has resulted in a re-arrest

    Additionaly, public favorability of the police among Red Hook residents has risen from 14 percent in 1997 to 66 percent in 2009. The public favorability of the general criminal justice system has risen from 12 percent to a staggering 94 percent since RHCJC opened.

    The process empowers peacemakers to be change agents in their communities and minimizes the amount of cases that trudge through the traditional court system and often end with devastating consequences for disputants. Taylor explains: “In the [traditional] adversarial system, you can be totally passive in the process. All you have to do is show up to your court date. You don’t have to say a word…In peacemaking, there is no way you can be passive. You have to take part in the resolution of your case.”

    The Dane County Community Restorative Court had 40 peacemakers in its inaugural class. It was developed to respond to the alarming results of the “Race to Equity” Report, which found that 469 of every 1,000 Black youths were arrested in Dane County, compared to 77 of every 1,000 White youth. To truly recognize and understand the intangible community impact of the court, Taylor advises county officials to trust the process. “There are some things you just can’t measure, but you know as a community it’s working,” he says. “[Be aware of] how you are defining success.”