No. 12: Why a Drug Court is not called a Community Court

August 25, 2014


Early on, I came to see the drug court as just a part of the solution to misbehavior and criminal conduct. I saw community generated and sustained programs as being at the heart of real criminal justice reform, and drug court being the first true “Community Court”. By the time I got to Washington to set up NADCP in 1996, a small offshoot of drug court, called “Community Court” had been established in the heart of Manhattan, as part of a campaign to clean up the Times Square area. Organized by a New York State sponsored reform organization, the Center for Court Innovation, and with the support of financial institutions in the Times Square area, it had adopted the community court label for a court dealing with minor infractions and misdemeanors, that were committed mostly by derelicts and homeless people (whose very presence discouraged family tourism, a major goal of the programs backers). The program worked and remains a thriving and effective neighborhood based variation on drug court with fifty “Community Courts” or more across the nation.

Knowing the importance of names and the meaning we give them, I belatedly attempted to establish the broader community roots of drug courts by dedicating the 2nd Annual NADCP Conference in 1997 to an all inclusive concept of “Community Courts’, that included drug courts and other community based programs being developed across the nation. I wrote and distributed  a concept paper entitled “Introducing The Community Court Institute”, (an early precursor of the hugely successful “National Drug Court Institute”) that was distributed at the national conference.  I argued in a letter to Shay Bilchik, on September 26, 1996, (the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs) who was leading the Justice Departments project to define “Community Court”, that they should be described as a “Neighborhood Court” since they “are designed to reflect neighborhood concerns”

Unfortunately, the community court definition as  a neighborhood court dealing with minor offenses was too well established to be dislodged. The result; many drug courts and their progeny never saw their programs as community based, relying on community participation, or being responsible to their communities;  a problem that continues in many drug courts and similar programs to this day. In time I settled for the designation of Community-Based Court as being a substitute  for the all inclusive Community Court label. But I have always regretted the  lost opportunity to stamp Drug Court and its progeny as “community courts”



Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit

Sept.16, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 12.47.43 PM“The Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit” is an excellent document, describing in detail the structure, principles, and procedures of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. It also provides excellent  appendices, including program templates, check lists, participant questionaires and other documents that will  be helpful to those starting a reentry court or simply interested in understanding how the Harlem program works.

The Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit”,  is authored by Debbie Boar and Chris Watler, administrators of the Harlem Community Reentry Task Force and the Harlem Parole Reentry Court, respectively, It is published by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), and funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. [  please click on the image to the left for a PDF: the Harlem Reentry Court Toolkit]


New Analysis of Harlem Parole Court

March 21, 2011

We first provided a description of Harlem’s Administrative Parole Reentry Court in May of 2010. Since that time, an evaluation of the program has been published by the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), authored by Zach Hamilton, Do Reentry Courts Reduce Recidivism? Results from the Harlem Parole Reentry Court.

Last week, a new description of the Harlem Court was published by CCI, “TOWARDS AN EFFECTIVE REENTRY COURT MODEL: THE HARLEM PAROLE REENTRY COURT“. Authored by Chris Watler, Project Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center and Bryn Herrschaft, researcher for the Center For Court Innovation, this powerpoint presentation present new information and data on the effectiveness of the Harlem Project.

Reentry Court Axiom: Smaller “Margin Of Error”

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) sponsored Reentry Court “Focus Group”, held in Boston, June 1, arrived at what might be described as a “Reentry Court Axiom”,  that “the greater the risk of  a particpant re-offending, the smaller the “margin of error”, for reentry court practitioners, to get it right”. Reading a transcript of the “Reentry Court  Focus Group” proceedings left me with the strong impression that, while the Reentry Court are largely based on the drug court model,  high-risk offenders returning from jails and prison, would pose a greater challenge than other  participant groups to date.

This conundrum was spelled out in the presentation of Dr. Douglas Marlowe, NADCP Director of Law, Policy, and Science, when he described the above mentioned, “Reentry Court Axiom” and the need to be diligent in the application of “evidence based practices” (see: Dr. Marlowe’s comments).  Other practitioners/experts in the field came to seemingly diferent conclusions. Judges Steven Manley of Santa Clara County , CA, and Chris Carpenter, of Boone County, Mo., agreed that the reentry court population would have to be treated differently than other populations, and that they presented a special challenge for the reentry court professional. But they concluded that allowances woud have to be made to keep the high risk offender in the reentry court; in effect lowering the bar required of reentry court particpants to stay in the program.

After reviewing the transcript, the seeming conflict resolved. Both Dr. Marlowe and the practitioner/experts agreed that this would be a more difficult population, one that would require “evidence-based practices” to be applied faithfully and diligently. But within those “practices” resided the flexibility (and  even necessity) for “lowering the bar”, by applying intermediate sanctions to  non-violent probation/parole violations.  Innovative intermediate sanctions, applied swiftly and with certainty, will allow the Reentry Court  to keep the offender in the community, without violating the participants’ parole/probation, or sending the participant back to prison.

I came away from my co-facilitaiton of the focus group (with Al Siegel, Deputy Director of the Center  for Court Innovations), with an understanding of the difficulty of effectively dealing with the Reentry Court population. But also with the belief that Reentry Court is our last best opportunity  to stem the flood of offenders returning to our prisons. [Reentry Court Focus Group Transcript. June 1, 2010]

Harlem’s Administrative Parole Reentry Court

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court, sits in one of the oldest court buildings in Manhattan, though it is by no means a traditional court.  The renovated courthouse is home to the “Harlem Community Justice Center”,   a multi-jurisdictional community court project, as well as the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. The Reentry Court is presided over by Parole Administrative Law Judge Grace Bernstein, and staffed by co-located parole officers , as well as Justice Center case managers.

Prospective parolees are pre-identified while awaiting release from custody at one of two pre-release reentry facilities in New York City. The majority of parolees in the program are residents of Harlem, a historic but high poverty community. Recent research conducted by the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, also a project of the Justice Center, found that half of all parolees released to Manhattan returned to Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, even though the area is home to just 36% of the county’s population.  Participants are assigned to the Reentry Court for frequent (often weekly) court hearings, and are immediately engaged in treatment, rehabilitation, and job related services. The Reentry Court team consists primarily of the judge, two parole officer, three case managers, and service providers. The Court is a non-adversarial forum so counsel is not present. The program provides an extraordinary courtroom session, where the Judge, parolee and staff  “drill down” on each case to learn what is going right, discuss challenges and where more support or services might be needed. The Court uses sanctions and incentives to help motivate participants, and has a wide variety of programs and services available within the building and community to increase opportunities for success. The program typically runs the first six months of parole, culminating in a graduation ceremony (recent keynote speakers included the legendary Harry Belafonte and recently elected Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.). Successful completers have their cases transferred to a regular parole office but may continue to engage services at the Justice Center. Those who are terminated from the Reentry Court program, appear off site, at an adversarial “parole revocation hearing”, represented by counsel.

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court has been successful at reducing new convictions for parolees, as a recently released evaluation by the Center for Court Innovation shows. However, the news is mixed. The evaluation also points out that Reentry Court participants received more technical violations (typically failures to follow the directions of judge and parole officer; to drug test, attend programs, or maintain contacts) than the comparison group. Along with a number of other exemplary programs, Harlem’s Reentry Court’s smaller caseloads and improved collaboration and communication between parole staff and treatment staff make it harder for parolees’ mistakes to go unnoticed. As Court Administrator Chris Watler explained to me, the Harlem Reentry Court is much better than regular parole at catching the parolee in program violations that can lead to “parole revocations”. To address the problem, the Reentry Court is using a recently awarded Second Chance Act grant to develop an evidence-based risk assessment tool (COMPAS) and graduated response protocol.

Contact: [email protected]

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