The courtroom at the Midtown Community Court, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is not a grand, oak-paneled hall of justice. It's crammed into the ground floor of a building on a nondescript Manhattan side street. Attorneys, defendants, and court officers squeeze past each other in the aisles.
Another words, it doesn’t look like anything special. But this public-private partnership is actually a national model for a different approach to dispensing justice.
Judge Felicia Mennin presides over the less-than-glamorous proceedings with a firm hand and an occasional smile, handing out sentences to people charged with the petty offenses of urban life – panhandling, marijuana possession, shoplifting, prostitution, trespassing, and the like.
In one of the city's regular criminal courts, the judge would be limited to two choices in her sentencing: jail time, or time served. At an alternative court like MCC, Judge Mennin can draw on a whole range of options designed to get at the root cause of the crime. Drug treatment, domestic-violence counseling, job training, parenting classes – these are some of the tools at the judge's disposal. Many of the programs are housed in the same building as the court. There's one designed to divert adolescents from the corrections system. Another program helps fathers develop healthy relationships with their children.
"Here, it's a problem-solving court," Mennin says. "You try to figure out collaboratively what landed a person here and how it can be fixed." A woman might be selling sex because she is in an abusive relationship. A thief might be shoplifting because he’s addicted to drugs and unemployed. Sometimes, these people are ready to get help, and at MCC support staff is standing by to get people the services they need.
Defendants can also be sentenced to a wide variety of community service projects, including cleaning nearby streets, painting over graffiti, and cleaning the courthouse itself. The court handled 28,403 cases in 2012, and 83 percent of defendants who appeared here completed their community service mandates, as opposed to 50 percent sentenced at the more traditional criminal court downtown.
When people talk about how much safer the streets of New York have gotten over the last 20 years, they often focus on the role played by police. The law enforcement community hails their aggressive tactics -- stepping up arrests for minor "quality of life" offenses, along with controversial stop-and-frisk – as the foundation of the city's new normal, where walking down the street is no longer a risky proposition.
Less discussed is the role of the courts. But places like MCC are a big part of the story, says Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a larger organization that grew out of the MCC. He has been with the project almost from its 1993 inception in the heart of one of Manhattan's most crime-plagued neighborhoods.
"In the early 1990s, all of the conversation in policy circles, in the media, and among the general public was about stiffening penalties," Berman says. In New York, those conversations were driven by fear of rampant crime and a deep concern over the city's alarming population loss. In that climate, the establishment of an "alternative" court, one of only two in the nation, was bucking a trend.
"Now, it's a very different conversation," Berman says. "You can talk in an open way about alternatives to incarceration. Back then you had to talk about it in whispers."
Now there are thousands of courts like this one, and Berman says there's been a "shift in attitude" among judges about the effectiveness of jail alternatives. While the incarcerated population in the nation as a whole has gone up sharply over the last 20 years, it has fallen dramatically in New York, one of the states where alternative sentencing has really taken hold.
Berman and other staffers like to talk about the concept of procedural justice, in which judges listen to defendants carefully, consider their individual circumstances and make decisions in a more open, less intimidating space than is typical in traditional criminal court. "If you treat defendants with respect," Berman explains, "they'll react with increased compliance."
Judge Mennin, who describes herself as "not a softie," says that she has seen that repeatedly over her two-year stint at the court. She talks about cases where asking the right questions and listening to the answers made a difference – like the time she asked a man who was acting angry and violent how he was feeling, and he told her he was upset because he had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. After he revealed that, she says, he calmed down and accepted his sentence without incident.
And she has seen many times how people's lives can be changed for the better. She tells the story of one woman, mother of a three-year-old girl, who came in badly strung out on drugs, in danger of losing her child. She was sentenced to a residential treatment program, where parents can take their kids. Months later she returned to visit the judge, looking happy and healthy – a changed woman. "When they come back through the front door, that's a delightful meeting," Mennin says.
Another person who has been convinced by MCC is Rahmel Brunson, 30, who was mandated to come here by family court. He has taken part in several of the available programs, learning job skills, parenting techniques, and general life strategies. "I got a lot out of the program," he says. "It teaches you patience, how to deal with life on an everyday basis."
Now Brunson has moved on to a paid internship. Seventy percent of the people who complete the program he’s been through move on to paid employment, earning an average of $11.50 an hour.
Even more important than the work, says Brunson, is the way he has been able to reconnect with his oldest daughter, who is 12. "We used to have difficulty clicking," he says. Not anymore.
"I thought it was going to be a totally different program," says Brunson. "Like, more of a stern thing. But it turned out to be wonderful. I would encourage people to come here. There’s a lot of help here."