Community court

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In the United States and several other countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and South Africa, a community court is a neighborhood-focused problem-solving court that applies a problem-solving approach[1] to local crime and safety concerns.[2] Community courts can take many forms, but all strive to create new relationships, both within the justice system and with outside stakeholders such as residents, merchants, churches and schools. Community courts emphasize collaboration, crime prevention, and improved outcomes, including lower recidivism and safer communities. Community courts are also sometimes referred to as community or neighborhood justice centers.

In Australia, a community court is the name given to "indigenous court" proceedings conducted in the Magistrates Court of the Northern Territory. Australia also has a Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood, Victoria, based on the U.S.-style community court.

Community courts in the U.S.[edit]

Midtown Community Court[edit]

The first community court in the United States was the Midtown Community Court, launched in 1993 in New York City.[3] The court, which serves the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan, targets quality-of-life offenses, such as prostitution, illegal vending, graffiti, shoplifting, farebeating, and vandalism.[4]

Operated as a public/private partnership among the New York State Unified Court System, New York City, and the Center for Court Innovation[5] the court initially opened as a three-year demonstration project, designed to test the ability of criminal courts to forge closer links with the community and develop a collaborative problem-solving approach to quality-of-life offenses.

The Midtown Court experiment was born of a profound frustration with the conventional response to quality-of-life crime. Supporters of the initiative, which included justice system innovators, business leaders and neighborhood residents, felt that the justice system did not take community concerns seriously. They also felt that a court could use its leverage to more effectively address the causes and conditions that contribute to crime.

Court planners sited the new court in a renovated 1896 building. The building featured clean, bright holding rooms secured with glass panels rather than bars, a pointed contrast to the typical holding pens. The new courthouse also included a full floor of office space for social workers to assist offenders. And the building was wired for an innovative computer system that would allow the judge, attorneys and social service workers to keep in touch with each other and quickly access a defendant's full record.

Offenders at the Midtown Community Court are sentenced to pay back the community through work projects in the neighborhood—caring for street trees, getting rid of graffiti, cleaning subway stations and sorting recycled cans and bottles. At the same time, wherever possible, the court uses its legal leverage to link offenders with social services—drug treatment, health care, education—to help them address their problems. In these ways, the Midtown Community Court seeks to stem the chronic offending that demoralizes law-abiding residents.[6]

Research conducted by the National Center for State Courts [1] on the implementation and early effects of the Midtown Community Court over its first 18 months found that the project achieved its key operational objectives: to provide speedier justice; to make justice visible in the community where crimes take place; to encourage enforcement of low-level crime; to marshal the energy of local residents, organizations and businesses to collaborate on developing community service and social service projects; and to demonstrate that communities are victimized by quality-of-life offenses.[7]

The researchers also credited the Midtown Court with changing conventional sentencing practices for low-level offenses, which were typically either sentences of "time served" (i.e., the time spent in jail between arrest and appearing in court) or short-term jail (a month or less). Sentencing at the Midtown Court produced significantly more intermediate sanctions than the city's conventional arraignment court. Intermediate sanctions included immediate assignment to community restitution projects (with offenders often beginning their sentences within 24 hours of their arraignments) to mandatory participation in social services, such as drug treatment or job training.

In addition, the researchers found "substantial evidence" that the Midtown Court contributed to improvements in quality-of-life conditions in Times Square and surrounding neighborhoods. Together, ethnographic observations of local crime and safety "hot spots," interviews with offenders, analysis of arrest data, focus group interviews and interviews with local police, community leaders and residents pointed to substantial reductions in concentrations of prostitution and unlicensed vending. Arrests for prostitution in the Midtown neighborhood dropped by 56 percent over the first 18 months and arrests for unlicensed vending fell by 24 percent, reflecting a visible reduction in criminal activity on the streets. Community members also reported a marked reduction in graffiti along Ninth Avenue, the commercial strip that serves the residential community.

By 1997, the Court was arraigning an average of 65 cases per day for an annual total of over 16,000 cases. This volume made the Midtown Court one of the busiest arraignment courts in the city. In addition, sentenced offenders were performing the equivalent of $175,000 worth of community restitution work per year. The Midtown Court's emphasis on immediacy—offenders must report to the Court's community service or social service center immediately after sentencing—also improved compliance rates. Nearly 75 percent complete their community restitution sentences as mandated, the highest rate in the city.

Principles of community courts[edit]

According to the Center for Court Innovation, community courts are animated by six key principles.[8] They are:

  • Restoring the community:
  • Bridging the gap between communities and courts;
  • Knitting together a fractured criminal justice system;
  • Helping offenders deal with problems that lead to crime;
  • Providing the courts with better information; and
  • Building a physical courthouse that reflects these ambitions.


By the end of 2010, there had been at least 19 separate evaluations conducted of community courts, including 11 impact studies, nine process evaluations, and three cost-benefit analyses.[9] A 2012 evaluation of the District of Columbia Superior Court's East of the River Community Court found that the program brought down rates of re-offending among misdemeanor defendants.[10]

Replication of the community court model[edit]

Over 30 community courts, inspired by the model of the Midtown Community Court,[11] are in operation or planning around the U.S. Although different in many ways, the various U.S. community courts all strive to create new relationships, both within the justice system and with outside stakeholders, such as residents, merchants, churches and schools. They also test new and aggressive approaches to public safety.

Community courts in the United States include: Downtown San Diego Community Court Project (opened in October 2002); Denver Community Court (opened in September 2003); Hartford Community Court (opened in November 1998); Waterbury (Connecticut) Community Court, opened in October 2000; Washington, D.C. – East of the River Community Court; Washington, D.C. – Traffic and Misdemeanor Community Court (opened in January 2002); West Palm Beach (Florida) Community Court, opened in August 1999; Westgate Community Justice Center in Palm Beach County, Florida (opened in May 2006); Atlanta Community Court (opened in March 2000); Indianapolis Community Court (opened in April 2001); Dakota County, Minnesota, Community Court (opened in October 2002); Minneapolis – Hennepin County Community Court (opened in June 1999); St. Paul (Minnesota) Community Court (opened in 2000); Babylon (New York) Community Court, (opened in September 2006); Harlem Community Justice Center (opened in May 2001); Hempstead (New York) Community Court (opened in June 1999); Red Hook ( Brooklyn, New York) Community Justice Center (opened in April 2000); Syracuse (New York) Community Court (opened in July 2001); Gresham (Oregon) Community Court (opened in March 1998); Westside Community Court in Portland, Oregon (opened in April 2001); Overland Park Community Court in Clackamas County, Oregon (opened in January 2005); Philadelphia Community Court (opened in February 2002); Frayser Community Court in Memphis, Tennessee (opened in February 2000); Whitehaven Community Court in Memphis, Tennessee (opened in September 2002); Downtown Austin Community Court (opened in October 1999); South Dallas/Fair Park Community Court (opened in October 2004); West Dallas Community Court (opened November 2008); San Antonio Community Court (opened in May 2006); Seattle Community Court (opened in March 2005).

USA Today reported that interest in community courts was growing, citing new courts in the works in Newark, N.J., among other cities.[12]

American-style community courts outside the U.S.[edit]

Interest in the American community court model is also increasing abroad.[13] A report by the Open Society Institute issued in 2008 found that by the end of 2007, 52 community courts were operational around the globe.[14] The report said an additional 27 new courts were slated to open in coming years.

Based on the success of pilot community court projects in North Liverpool and Salford, in 2006 the British government announced plans to create 11 new community courts, all of which were up and running by early 2008.[15] Seventeen community court projects are already in operation in South Africa. (In South Africa, the term "community court" also refers to a form of tribunal also known as Courts for Chiefs and Headmen; in these courts, an authorised African headman or his deputy may decide cases using indigenous law and custom, brought before him by an African against another African within his area of jurisdiction.)

The Collingwood Neighbourhood Justice Centre opened in Melbourne, Australia, in March 2007.

The Downtown Community Court opened in Vancouver, Canada, in 2008.[16] The court addresses the Downtown Eastside neighborhood. The court seeks both to reduce the harm caused to the community by crime and use collaborative case management to help offenders make long-term changes to their behavior. However, Laura Track, a lawyer and housing campaigner for Vancouver's Pivot Society, says there's a legal log jam ahead unless the government invests millions more in housing and treatment programs. This new court is presided over by Justice Thomas Gove.[17]

A community court project is also being planned for Glasgow, Scotland.[18]

Community courts in Australia[edit]

In Australia, the "community court" is not an actual court, but is the commonly referred designation of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction of the Northern Territory when dealing with indigenous offenders accused of crime. This is to show its distinction from the usual procedures involved in that criminal court. The court commenced as a twelve-month trial in Darwin and still continues today.[19] At present, the court only sits in Darwin. However, there is no barrier to the court sitting outside Darwin if the court determines that it is necessary to do so.

The court allows the involvement of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the sentencing process. It allows senior members of the local community to be involved in and express their views upon the particular and to be part of the sentencing process. The Court is conducted in a fairly informal manner and is conducted with a view to enhance the reaching of an agreement between the involved parties as to the most appropriate sentence to impose. The court is innovative in that it incorporates the victim of the actual crime into the restorative process.[20]


The establishment of the court differs from other indigenous courts established around Australia. In Victoria and Queensland, each of those States have established separate and distinct courts to deal with indigenous offenders. Those courts are the Koori Court and the Murri Court respectively. The Community Court is not established as a court in its own right. The court is actually the Court of Summary Jurisdiction, which is the Territory's main criminal court dealing with summary criminal matters. Summary criminal matters are generally less serious criminal matters, as serious crime is dealt with the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory.

The court also differs in that it operates under guidelines established by the Chief Magistrate of the Northern Territory. Those guidelines are available on the Magistrates Court website. In other States, similar courts operate under special legislation. In New South Wales, this is the "circle sentencing" legislation which is heard by the Local Court of New South Wales. However, in practice, these distinctions make little difference to the manner in which each of the courts operate.

Participation in "indigenous courts" is voluntary, and offenders are eligible to participate only if they plead guilty to the offence or offences for which they have been charged. Participation in the program is available for any type of offence, although sexual assaults and domestic violence offences are usually not dealt with by the court. While participants in the court are involved in determining the appropriate sentence to be imposed upon an offender, the magistrate has the final say on the sentence imposed. In an Australian Law Reform Commission report, it was reported that participants in these types of court report higher levels of satisfaction with the system than the usual British based legal proceedings.[21]

Constitution of the court[edit]

As the court is actually a Court of Summary Jurisdiction, the court is constituted by a magistrate. The magistrate presides, facilitates, and ultimately determines the appropriate sentence for the offender. The magistrate is assisted by at least one community representative. The community representative provides the court with information on the background of the offender, as well as being able to point out the aspects of the offence as they relate to the offender, the impacts they have on the community and the effect it has had on the victim of the crime.

The prosecutor continues to present the facts of the case and makes submissions as necessary on the crime. The offender participates in the process by agreeing to adhere to the community process involved. Lastly, the victim is encouraged to be part of the process and to outline the impact of the crime upon them. However, it is not compulsory for the victim to be involved if they do not wish to.


The court begins with the participants arranged in a circle in the venue. The presiding magistrate opens the court and explains the process of the court and the role of the various participants in the proceedings. Each participant introduces themselves, explaining who they, and their relationship to the offender. The court clerk reads the charge and the offender reaffirms their earlier guilty plea to the community. The prosecutor reads out the "fact" of the crime. This is a narrative of the events that constitute the crime. This narrative has been agreed to before court as being accurate and a fair representation of what actually occurred. Each participant is then given an opportunity to speak about the offence. At the end of this, there may be a general discussion of the impact of the offence. At the conclusion of this, the offender and the prosecutor make formal submissions to the court about the sentence. The community representatives then have an opportunity to make comments on those submissions. Lastly, the presiding magistrate determines the appropriate sentence to impose.


As the proceedings are actually a case in the Court of Summary Jurisdiction, all the usual appeal processes that apply in that court continue to apply.


  1. ^ "Principles of Problem-Solving Justice" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  2. ^ Community Court | Center for Court Innovation
  3. ^ "Midtown Community Court | Center for Court Innovation". Archived from the original on 9 June 2008. Retrieved 18 November 2008.
  4. ^ "Neighborhood Justice at the Midtown Community Court". National Institute of Justice.
  5. ^ Center for Court Innovation | Research. Development. Justice. Reform
  6. ^ For an overview of how the court works, see "How It Works: A Summary of Case Flow and Interventions at the Midtown Community Court" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  7. ^ "Dispensing Justice Locally: The Implementation and Effects of the Midtown Community Court". Routledge.
  8. ^ "Community Court Principles: A Guide for Planners" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  9. ^ "Community Court: The Research Literature: A Review of Findings" (PDF). Center for Court Innovation.
  10. ^ "East of the River Community Court Evaluation: Final Report" (PDF). Westat.
  11. ^ "Community Courts: An Evolving Model" (PDF). U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.
  12. ^ Leinwand, Donna (9 June 2008). "Alternative courts gain ground for petty criminals". USA Today. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  13. ^ "Community Justice Around the Globe: An International Overview" (PDF). Crime & Justice International.
  14. ^ For a comprehensive overview of community courts around the world, see "Community Courts Across the Globe: A Survey of Goals, Performance Measures and Operations" (PDF). Criminal Justice Initiative of Open Society Foundation for South Africa. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 April 2011.
  15. ^ For more information about community courts in Great Britain, see the British government's official web site at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 7 August 2008. Retrieved 18 November 2008.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ For more information about the Vancouver Community Justice Centre, see
  17. ^ "Community court first of its kind in Canada". CTV News. Retrieved 6 September 2008.
  18. ^ The Journal Online : Community court plans for Glasgow
  19. ^ "Recidivism in the Northern Territory: Adult Prisoners Released in 2001-02"
  20. ^ "NT Magistrates Court website"
  21. ^ "Same Crime, Same Time: Sentencing of Federal Offenders", ALRC Report 103,[permanent dead link]


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