In 2000, an experimental court opened its doors in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood plagued by a cycle of unemployment, poverty and crime. The Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC) is at the center of a legal revolution: the community justice movement, which emphasizes neighborhood-focused problem solving and rehabilitation over punishment and doing time. Instead of jail time, offenders are often sentenced to job training, drug counseling and community service. In RED HOOK JUSTICE, acclaimed filmmaker Meema Spadola provides an up-close examination of the RHCJC, a revolutionary new kind of community court that has served as a model for other courts in cities across the country.
America’s criminal courts are clogged with more than 11 million low-level crimes each year, many of them committed by repeat offenders. The RHCJC was created to stop this revolving door phenomenon by turning around the lives of those who find themselves repeatedly before the bench and healing the surrounding community. RED HOOK JUSTICE profiles the early years of this bold new court. The filmmakers were allowed exclusive access at the RHCJC for nearly two years, capturing vérité scenes of intake interviews in the Center's holding cells, court proceedings, community meetings and other day-to-day workings of the Justice Center.
RED HOOK JUSTICE focuses on the dramatic stories of three Red Hook defendants and a handful of staffers at the Center. Anthony and Michael are orphaned teen brothers who have multiple drug arrests and are struggling to get their lives in order, all while resisting the pull of the streets and their family's legacy of imprisonment and death. Letitia, who has sold drugs and worked as a prostitute, gets pregnant shortly after being arrested while trying to buy heroin. She has already lost two children to the foster care system, but if she stays off drugs, she'll have another shot at motherhood.
Featured RHCJC staff include Brett Taylor, a passionate Legal Aid defender who handles a hundred criminal cases at a time and wonders if this new court helps or hurts his clients; Leroy Davis, a court officer who grew up in the Red Hook housing projects; District Attorney Gerianne Abriano, who works to redefine the role of prosecutor and sometimes finds herself in the unlikely position of advocating for drug treatment rather than jail; and Judge Alex Calabrese, the public face of the court who takes a hands-on approach with defendants.
The U.S. Department of Justice has called the Red Hook Community Justice Center "a standard bearer for the entire country." Indeed, today there are three dozen courts like it around the United States, and new justice centers are opening in the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. RED HOOK JUSTICE is powerful portrait of what this new kind of court can and will mean for communities worldwide.
Filmmaker Meema Spadola shot RED HOOK JUSTICE between 2000 and 2003. In 2005, she reported:
Since the documentary was completed, Anthony has stayed out of trouble, worked sporadically at odd jobs, and had a second child—a little girl—with the mother of his son. He still stops by the Justice Center to visit, and recently came by to very proudly show the Judge a pay stub.
Anthony’s older brother Michael has left Red Hook and lives in the Bronx with his girlfriend and their new baby. He’s working as a bike messenger.
Since the documentary’s postscript, Letitia had another baby. She has not yet been able to regain custody of her other kids, but she has taken 12 parenting skills classes and expects to regain custody of one child in just a few months. Letitia occasionally visits the Justice Center to seek services and support. She looks great and is finally drug-free.
Brett, Leroy, Gerianne and Judge Calabrese all remain at the Justice Center, and sometimes travel around the country and the world to educate people about community justice.
Since filming ended, Leroy moved back to the Red Hook neighborhood, where he was born and raised. In 2004, Leroy received a Merit Award from New York State’s Chief Judge Judith Kaye to commemorate his work in the Red Hook community, including the “Books & Basketball” program and his mentoring of Red Hook youth.
Brett is marking his fifth year as coach of the Defenders, a co-ed team that is part of the Red Hook Youth Baseball League.
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