For two decades, Judge Alex Calabrese ’79 has been pioneering a more compassionate way of administering justice in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The world is taking notice.
It’s a quiet April morning on the streets of Red Hook. A pair of high-tops swings from a telephone wire. A few workers wearing hard hats make their way to a construction site. And in the shadow of the neighborhood’s once infamous housing projects, the trees in Coffey Park are starting to bloom.
But just across the street from the park, in a rehabbed Catholic school on Visitation Place, one drama after another is unfolding. Judge Alex Calabrese is hearing the first of the day’s 80 or so cases at the Red Hook Community Justice Center—everything from theft to assault to drug charges—perpetrated not just in Red Hook but in Sunset Park, Gowanus, Prospect Heights, and beyond, including cases from three different precincts.
Standing before Judge Calabrese is Sean Johnson (his name has been changed to protect his privacy). Over the years he has been in and out of Rikers Island and has been arrested multiple times, most recently for shoplifting.
Today, Johnson has come before Judge Calabrese not for arraignment or sentencing but to do his part to solve some of the problems that have kept him cycling in and out of prison. On this afternoon, he has tested drug-free after months of counseling and treatment.
“Mr. Johnson,” Judge Calabrese asks. “Is there anything you want to say?” Johnson shakes his head. “I just want to give you the chance,” he offers. “You’re the one who did the work.” Johnson laughs and smiles as Calabrese continues. “You said you could get drug-free and you did. And remember—you don’t need a case for us to help you. Just walk in the front door and we will help. We want you to be successful.” Johnson nods as Calabrese calls him to the bench.
Judge Calabrese’s seat is at eye level rather than on a raised dais, so those coming before him don’t have to look up at him. “I want to shake your hand,” says Calabrese, 65, reaching out to Johnson. “The case is dismissed. And you deserve a round of applause.”
Everyone in court, including Calabrese, lawyers, court officers, and those crammed into the five benches who are awaiting their own hearings, applauds loudly. Johnson beams and heads out to visit the job training office at the courthouse, one of a long list of social services offered on-site.
For the past 20 years, Judge Alex Calabrese and a 75-person staff of social workers, drug counselors, résumé builders, GED administrators, housing advocates, and student interns from the neighborhood have helped 215,000 Brooklynites like Johnson. Innovative programs such as Peacemaking—which pairs defendants with police officers to promote better relations and understanding—and Youth Court, where a trained group of teens adjudicate cases involving their peers, have cemented the center’s role in the community and brought down crime in what was once one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
An experiment whose time has come
Prison reform happens to be one of the only issues both Democrats and Republicans agree on right now, which perhaps speaks to how urgently the system needs fixing. According to a March 2019 report from Prison Policy Initiative, nearly 2.3 million people are currently being held in 109 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, and 3,163 local jails, as well as Indian Country jails, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
Those living in poverty and people of color are the most likely to land behind bars: In 2014, the incarcerated had a 41 percent lower median annual income than people of similar ages who weren’t in prison. And despite comprising only 13 percent of U.S. residents, 40 percent of the incarcerated population is black.
Twenty years ago, when the Red Hook Center first opened, many of the surrounding residents seemed destined to end up in prison, as well. At the time, Red Hook was a very different place. The site of the Red Hook Houses, the city’s second-largest public housing project, the neighborhood was dubbed the “crack capital of America” by Life magazine in 1988. A few years later, in 1992, a popular school principal was gunned down in gang-related crossfire while out searching for a student. People living on the first floor of the projects would have their children sleep in bathtubs to protect them against random gunshots.
In 1993, the Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based nonprofit that aims to reduce crime through justice reform, tried an experiment in Times Square to cut down on crime there. The Midtown Court was a success, offering social services and a new approach to the judicial system. Instead of facing freedom or jail time, offenders were offered a third option—an opportunity to fix the problems that were fueling their crimes.
A small-town model
The Red Hook Community Justice Center, which opened in 2000, was Court Innovation’s next experiment. It was the first court of its kind to serve a residential community through a process known as procedural justice, which attempts to make the system more fair and transparent. The idea was to return to the small-town court model, with one judge seeing all the cases, working with both victims and perpetrators and forming a bond with the community. That judge was Alex Calabrese.
“When they first asked me if I wanted to do the Red Hook job, I said no,” says Calabrese, who was handling felony and other high-level cases in downtown Brooklyn at the time. “Why would I want to go to a misdemeanor court?”
Then he visited Red Hook.
This, he realized, was a different kind of court, one that was deeply engaged with the neighborhood. So he agreed to be assigned there. “People started to say, ‘You’re gonna need a tank to get in and out of there every day,’” he recalls.
Those in the neighborhood were also wary. At first, says Calabrese, the community was worried that they were simply bringing in a local jail to lock people up. But then they started to see how the center differed from the usual law-and-order model, with Judge Calabrese attending neighborhood meetings, visiting the projects regularly, and getting to know residents. His first court officer told him that people in the neighborhood simply wanted to be treated with respect. One mother came up to him after a community meeting and asked if he was a real judge. “We’ve never had a real judge out here,” she told him.
The most impressive thing about the center, says defense attorney Marty Lentz, who worked as a Legal Aid Society lawyer for 15 years in downtown Brooklyn before moving to the center a year and a half ago, is Judge Calabrese’s willingness to “recognize people’s humanity”—a hallmark of procedural justice. “That’s the starkest difference from other courts,” she says. Judge Calabrese not only connects with defendants moving through the courthouse but at least once a week, he, Lentz, and some of the court officers take their lunch break over at Coffey Park to play paddleball. “Everybody comes back to court relaxed,” says Lentz.
And ready for duty.
On this afternoon in April, it’s another typical lightning round in court, with Judge Calabrese hearing several cases, including road rage, illegal gambling, driving with a suspended license, petit larceny, and a drug case involving a 32-year-old man who had tested positive for cocaine and opiates. He was also having his share of personal problems, as Judge Calabrese was well aware. Besides taking care of his ailing mother, the man had also lost his apartment in a fire. Calabrese asked the man how his mother was doing. “It’s not easy caring for an older person,” the judge acknowledged. “It might be fueling your drug use.” The man nodded and said he was planning on attending some NA and AA meetings. He asked for another chance and said if that plan didn’t work, he would go into a detox program. Calabrese agreed, mindful that the man’s mother needed him around. “We’ll try it your way,” he said, shaking his hand and looking him in the eye. “But it’s got to work.”
Next was a 15-year-old girl with long eyelashes, hair pulled back into a bun, and a huge frown on her face. She had been in and out of the center for the past few years for running away and skipping school. On her last visit, Judge Calabrese had asked her to write an essay about what she would do if she were in his position.
I’d ask her, why? the neat, well-written essay read. I’d influence her not to give up and make a goal to go to school more often.
Judge Calabrese wrote A+ at the top of her paper, then pleaded with her to go to a counseling session at school early the next morning until the girl finally smiled brightly and promised. “I’ll definitely be there,” she said. “By 8:30. Maybe even a little earlier.” Later that afternoon, she showed up at a neighborhood job fair a few blocks away, going from table to table. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she smiled again and said she wanted to be a lawyer.
Calabrese’s triumphs in Red Hook are not merely anecdotal. A 2013 study by the National Center for State Courts found that juveniles whose cases were processed at the center were 20 percent less likely to be re-arrested within two years compared with those processed in regular family court. And according to the police department’s latest statistics, the 76th Precinct, which includes Red Hook, has continued to see a decrease in crimes over the past nine years, especially in misdemeanors, which are heard at the center.
These results are garnering nation- and worldwide attention. In April, the mayor of Amsterdam met with Judge Calabrese and sat in the courtroom, hoping to bring a similar brand of procedural justice to the Netherlands. She is not alone. Fifteen international courts have replicated the Red Hook center, including in Israel, Australia, and Ukraine. When yet another city adopts their model, Calabrese says he always sends out a memo to those in the building. “That way they know they’re not only helping their own,” he says. “People they’ve never met will get a different approach to justice.”
Closer to home, 78 courthouses across the country have used Red Hook as a model, and Staten Island’s district attorney, Michael E. McMahon, is working on bringing a court like the center to his borough. “The revolving door of criminal justice is not helping anybody,” says McMahon. The Red Hook system of addressing root problems people face, he says, “is better for … victims, better for [defendants,] and better for society as a whole.”
A real-life Atticus Finch
That system has been a long time coming. Judge Calabrese enrolled at Fordham Law in 1976, when the so-called Rockefeller Laws were dooming defendant after defendant to harsh sentences. Though no one had ever suggested law school and no one in his family had been a lawyer, Calabrese had always been a fan of the book To Kill a Mockingbird. “With so many of my classmates, I may not speak to them for years, but if you have a problem, they’re going to help you out. There’s that sense of public service that everyone has.”
Judge Calabrese has passed that sense of service down to his daughters. Corey, an attorney who graduated from Fordham Law in 2010, spent time with AmeriCorps. As for Calabrese, he began his law career at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, where he remained until 1986. “I was a good lawyer,” he says, humbly. “Good. Not great. I could give somebody a good defense.” Afterward, he worked as a court attorney with Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who was hearing drug-related murder cases in the city at the height of the nation’s drug epidemic. Yet Snyder, who was under 24-hour protection against drug gangs, would go out of her way to help those who could be helped, Calabrese recalls.
He took those early career experiences with him to Red Hook—then expanded on them. Besides presiding over the courtroom, he attends Little League games; hosts job fairs; and helps to solve the mental health, drug, and employment problems that often lead to neighborhood crimes. “I’m a better judge if I know the issues here,” says Calabrese, whose office walls are lined with Christmas cards from past defendants, as well as photos of their weddings, some of which he officiated. “If car break-ins are happening on a regular basis, let’s find out why. If you’re there, it shows that you care.”
A sense of possibility
Along the way, Calabrese has inspired others to follow his model. “A lot of judges who expressed skepticism … are now open to better ways to address people who come before them,” says Adam Mansky, director of criminal justice for the Center for Court Innovation, who helped plan the Red Hook court after the Times Square court’s success. “When they see Judge Calabrese they get a sense of the possible. Judges feel enabled by him. They say things like, ‘I didn’t know I could practice this way.’”
Of course, for every happy story, there’s a tragedy, like the mother of five who is facing eviction because her rent money has been going to drugs, again. “Sometimes it feels like we have a front-row seat to a really slow car wreck,” says court attorney Edna McGoldrick. (Incidentally, a week later, McGoldrick was able to stave off the eviction at the 11th hour.) To stay positive and calm in the face of these crises, Calabrese ribs his staff, who give it right back to him, including public defender Joy Steinberg, who recently teased Calabrese about a boyish-looking haircut. “I asked him if his haircut came with a lollipop,” she laughs. “He didn’t talk to me all day long.”
Calabrese also keeps a set of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots in his office, where, on really tough days, he sometimes does battle with McGoldrick to blow off steam. But what truly lifts his spirits is the work itself. “I’m lucky to be here,” he says.
Many of the defendants feel lucky to have wound up in Judge Calabrese’s court, as well. “This court is waaay different from other courts,” says Sean Johnson, who, after his latest encounter with Calabrese, is hoping to find work in maintenance. “In a regular court you see a judge and prosecutor. But they don’t clap or shake your hand. Here, they help you. Here, they showed me the way. If regular courts were like here, they could help people. They could show them the way.”