Defendant Perceptions of Fairness at the Red Hook Community Justice Center

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Defendant Perceptions of Fairness at the Red Hook Community Justice Center

By Somjen M. Frazer

From The Impact of the Community Court Model on Defendant Perceptions of Fairness by M. Somjen Frazer

Launched in June 2000 in a low-income community in southwest Brooklyn, the Red Hook Community Justice Center is an ambitious experiment in problem-solving justice, handling cases from Criminal, Family and Housing Court in one courtroom in front of a single judge. The goal is to bring the court and the community together to solve local problems, including drugs, youth delinquency, family dysfunction, landlord-tenant disputes and quality-of-life crime. In addition to solving the kinds of problems that bring individuals and families to court, the Justice Center works to prevent problems from becoming court cases. The courthouse is the hub for unconventional programs that engage residents in crime prevention, victim assistance, and community-building activities. 

In an effort to assess the impact of the Justice Center on defendant perceptions of fairness, the Center for Court Innovation conducted a survey of nearly 400 misdemeanor defendants, who had their cases handled at either the Justice Center or a traditional, centralized criminal court. The goal was to evaluate the effects of court location (Red Hook or the traditional court), defendant background (race, ethnicity, sex and socioeconomic status), the outcome of their current court case (dismissed or required to return to court; required to attend drug treatment or not), and the stage of their case at the time of the survey (arraignment or subsequent court appearance). Structured courtroom observations supplemented the results of the survey and helped to generate richer explanations about why different defendants might have perceived their court experiences as fair or unfair.

Among other outcomes, community courts seek to improve public confidence in the courts and to encourage law-abiding behavior. Previous research shows that when defendants perceive their treatment to be fair, they are more likely to accept the decisions of the court, comply with court-imposed sanctions, and obey the law in the future. This study provides the first-ever evaluation of the impact of a community court in improving upon a traditional court’s capacity to ensure that defendants leave court believing they were treated fairly.

Major findings from the study include:

  • The community court was considered to be more fair than the traditional court.  In addition to offering a wider range of non-custodial sentences (including social and community services), community courts such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center offer a more transparent and collaborative atmosphere for defendants, all of which may heighten defendant perceptions of fairness. At Red Hook, 86% agreed that their case was handled fairly by the court. This was true across the board, regardless of race, socioeconomic status or disposition of the case. 
  • Defendant responses to the traditional criminal court were also positive. Although defendant responses to Red Hook were generally more positive than the traditional court, at least 70 percent of defendants were satisfied with nearly all of the court actors and court processes in both courts.
  • Defendant perception of the judge was the most important predictor of overall perceptions of the court's fairness. Defendants who perceived that the judge treated them with respect, helpfulness, and objectivity were more likely to say their experience was fair overall.  This effect was stronger at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, presumably because the judge plays a more crucial role in the community court model, offering support and praise to successful defendants, sanctions for those who are noncompliant, and services and referrals for all defendants. 
  • The quality of communication that defendants experienced in the courtroom had a significant effect on their overall perceptions of the court's fairness. This suggests that by improving communication and enabling defendants to express their own perspectives, criminal courts might create more positive perceptions among defendants.
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