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Community Courts Gaining Momentum

By Jorge Casuso

March 30 -- The mayor and judges, the court administrators and social service providers, and the City and State officials who attended the conference Thursday on addressing homelessness through community courts all wanted to talk about one thing -- Red Hook.

Pull aside one of the 150 experts and stakeholders who attended the all-day conference at the RAND Corporation, and they were invariably struck by the dramatic success of the one-judge court in a “lawless” drug-ravaged port village in Brooklyn.

“Did you catch the part about Red Hook?” Council member Bobby Shriver said during a break.

“You saw what they did in Red Hook,” another top ranking City official noted during an interview.

From left: Judge Alex Calabresi, presiding judge of the Red Hook Community Justice Center; David Meyer, acting justice, Supreme Court of New York (partially obscured); Julius Lang, Center for Court Innovation, New York City; Santa Monica Council member Bobby Shriver; Ed Edelman, special representative for Homeless Issues; the Honorable Ronald M. George, Chief Justice, California Supreme Court, and Mayor Richard Bloom (Photo by Diane Baldwin)

Launched seven years ago after the murder of a public school principal, the Red Hook Community Justice Center has lowered crime, boosted confidence in the justice system, brought the community together and, most importantly, saved lives, said Judge Alex Calabrese, the court’s only judge.

“It combines services with the power of the court,” Calabrese said. “A regular court gives (defendants) two choices -- in jail, out of jail. I have a whole palette of options.

“The community court gives the judge authority and social service tools for a holistic approach,” he said. “You’re putting the services up front, and you’re making a whole new life for the kid and for society.”

Thursday’s conference -- which featured presentations by experts, judges and lawmakers from across the country -- gave City officials a yardstick by which to measure the progress and tweak features of the Homeless Court Santa Monica launched in February. (see story)

“What we have is a pilot court,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the City Manager for community and government relations. “We’re hearing ideas about how to grow our court.”

The Santa Monica Court “is a work in progress,” said Mayor Richard Bloom, who was a member of the panel that crafted Bring LA Home, a ten-year, countywide plan to end homelessness. “It’s a pilot project and there’s an ongoing evaluation.”

“There’s certainly models across the country that work,” said Julie Rusk, who heads Santa Monica’s homeless programs. “It’s an inspiring overview.

“When you look at what it takes to address some of these intractable issues, there’s no doubt you need tons of people that cross disciplines,” Rusk said. “Often these systems are fragmented. This is about creating collaboration.”

Bankrolled with an initial $500,000 from the County, the local court -- which gives the homeless charged with minor crimes a chance to hook up with social services instead of going to jail -- the Santa Monica Homeless Community Court is widely viewed as a model for the region.

Santa Monica officials hope the conference -- and especially the dramatic testimony from Red Hook -- will spur other cities across LA County to join the growing number of cities developing community courts -- from South Africa to New Zealand and Dublin to Singapore.

“The objective of this conference is to broaden the number of people who know about it,” Bloom said. “We only have one little program in Santa Monica, and we’re a big county.

“Obviously, this has to take hold if it’s going to affect the number of lives we have to affect,” he said.

Bloom noted that the conference -- co-sponsored by the City, RAND, the California Endowment and Public Counsel -- was attended by half a dozen LA County judges, as well as County Court administrators.

Council member Bobby Shriver, a driving force behind the City’s homeless initiatives, called on State and County officials to join in the effort.

“It’s all about the political will," Shriver said. “We need the Governor, the Mayor (of LA) and the County Supervisors to sign on. This conference is going to build support for the community courts.”

Rusk agreed.

“It requires political leadership,” Rusk said. “That’s what we need. Our message is we’re doing our part, and others need to step up to the plate.

“Hopefully, this will get others inspired and see the possibility,” she said.


"A regular court gives (defendants) two choices -- in jail, out of jail. I have a whole palette of options." Alex Calabrese



“It’s all about the political will. We need the Governor, the Mayor (of LA) and the County Supervisors to sign on." Bobby Shriver


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