A Case Study In Court Reform

For sheer diversity of activities, New York’s Midtown Community Court, located off Eighth Avenue on the edge of the Manhattan theater district, is unique in the halls of American justice. In one room, a pot of soup often can be seen simmering for the homeless or other hungry visitors. In another room, acupuncture treatments are administered. A total of 16 different social service, health, education, and employment agencies have offices in the court portion of the 100-year-old neo-classical building, which also houses several off-off-Broadway theaters.

The main courtroom is laid out like a traditional courtroom, with the judge, attorneys, and court reporters occupying their usual positions. However, there are important differences, most having to do with technology. Computers are stationed at key points – the judge’s bench, attorneys’ tables, and the clerk’s station. A large-screen video visible from almost anywhere in the room provides information on the cases being heard each day.

The Midtown Community Court is the centerpiece of the growing “community court” movement in the United States–the judiciary’s answer to community policing–an eclectic mix of treatment, restitution, and punishment. The court is also important for another reason: It gave rise to New York state’s Center for Court Innovation, one of the 10 national winners of last year’s Innovations in American Government Awards, bestowed (with a $100,000 prize) by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Ford Foundation. The Center for Court Innovation is an independent agency in the New York court system that is charged with investigating how state courts are working and with pointing the way to better methods of doing business.

Massachusetts has had its share of judicial innovations over the years. One of them–a domestic violence prevention program in Quincy District Court–even won a Kennedy School-Ford Foundation Innovations award in 1992. But the comprehensiveness of the New York program, with its sweeping mandate for change throughout the state court system, sets it apart. A closer look at how the Midtown Community Court blazed the trail for the Center for Court Innovation raises provocative questions about the court systems in other states, including our own. If New York can experiment with system-wide reform, why not Massachusetts?

Like many innovations, public policy and otherwise, the Midtown Community Court was born of adversity. In the early 1990s, the 350-block midtown area, which includes Times Square, was in an alarming state of decline, caused to a large extent by so-called “quality-of-life” offenses–prostitution, aggressive panhandling, vandalism, purse snatchings, and low-level drug activity. The courts, overwhelmed at the time with serious violent offenses, were ill-equipped to deal with the onslaught of petty criminals, who were typically sent back to the streets after brief sentences, often just the time served after their arrest.

In 1993, frustrated theater owners and other midtown businesses joined with local court and law enforcement officials to launch the special community court, which is designed to deal specifically with quality-of-life crimes. Businesses and foundations contributed $2.5 million to open the facility and outfit it with the latest in computer and network technology so that everyone connected to the court can stay up to the minute on the progress of cases. In recent years, the government has covered most of the cost of the court, although it remains officially a public-private partnership run by the New York state court system, the City of New York, and the Fund for the City of New York, a private foundation.

The aim of the Midtown Community Court is to break the cycle of crime while involving the community in the process. In most cases, defendants can escape jail by agreeing to enter treatment for their particular affliction, most often drug or alcohol dependency. English language classes, health services, and job and education placement are available in the building. Restitution is a big element of the court, with sentences typically involving community service activities such as sweeping streets and painting graffiti-scarred buildings in the neighborhoods where crimes occurred.

The court has gotten favorable reviews from academic researchers who have examined it. “They are hugely different from other courts,” said Adele Harrell, director of the Program on Law and Behavior at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Harrell praised the program, saying it is attacking the root causes of crime and neighborhood decay. “I have never seen anything quite like this. They are using the courts as an intake place to deal with the community’s problems,” she said.

A 1997 study by the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, found that the court produced significantly swifter justice. The time it took for defendants to be arraigned, tried, sentenced, and finished with their community service was down significantly from the traditional Downtown Manhattan Court. The compliance rate for community service also was significantly higher at Midtown (75 percent to 50 percent). Boosters of the community court often cite a 64 percent decline in prostitution cases as additional proof of its success, though there is no way of linking the drop to the court’s activities. However, focus group and survey research by the National Center for State Courts found that community leaders and residents believed that crime was down and that the court had played an important role in the shift.

About three years ago, the coalition that started the Midtown Court decided to push the idea further. The group incorporated as the Center for Court Innovation. At the same time, leaders moved to extend the community court model – treatment plus sanctions and community involvement – to other sections of New York City. Two courts were opened in Brooklyn – one focusing on drug cases, another on domestic violence. Two community courts – one in Harlem, the other in Brooklyn – are scheduled to open this year, as are two youth-oriented community courts, also in Brooklyn and Harlem.

Two years ago, the center was recognized as an official part of the state court system, commonly referred to as the research and development arm of the New York courts. “We work as a dedicated resource in the court system,” said Greg Berman, the center’s deputy director.

This status as an institutionalized force for innovation is what caught the attention of the Kennedy School, which reviewed some 1,400 applications for its annual awards. “It is not just an innovation here and an innovation there. They are changing what a court is about and what the culture of a court is,” said Bill Parent, executive director of the Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Program.

The community court movement is not without critics. The programs are still new with incomplete track records. No one has compiled data on recidivism, widely seen as a key variable in evaluating courts. Although punishment and the threat of punishment are very much part of the community court model, the emphasis on treatment leaves the backers open to “soft-on-crime” charges. Also, because of the large number of counselors, social workers, and other service providers employed by community courts, the programs tend to be more expensive to operate than traditional courts, at least in the short run. The Midtown Court’s special programs cost about a million dollars a year, according to Berman.

Still, the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation are attracting notice all over the country. Judges, district attorneys, and court administrators routinely troop to Manhattan from all corners of the United States for tours. Extensive articles have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. At latest count, two dozen community courts based on the Midtown experiment – including one in Hartford, Conn.–have opened or are in the planning stages.

Could the New York model of innovation and community courts work in Massachusetts? To some extent, it already has.

Could the New York model of innovation and community courts work in Massachusetts? The answer is that it already has, at least to some extent.

At about the same time that the Midtown Community Court was getting organized, a dedicated band of reformers from Franklin County in Western Massachusetts started the Franklin County Futures Lab Task Force, with the goal of remaking the operation of the county’s two courthouses in Orange and Greenfield. The group, led by Orange District Court Justice Thomas T. Merrigan and Diane H. Esser, a Greenfield attorney, has spearheaded the establishment of a community outreach board and a “drug court.” The drug court, one of four now operating in Massachusetts (see CW, Spring 1998), combines intensive treatment with rigorous testing and the threat of incarceration. Also being developed by the Franklin County group is a “restorative justice” program, in which victims are involved in the sentencing of offenders and selection of restitution requirements. State court officials are planning to institute programs based on the Franklin County model in district courts in Essex and Hampshire counties and in West Roxbury District Court this year.

Judge Merrigan is a well-known figure in national community court circles, and he is in demand on the lecture circuit. (Recently, he gave a speech to a meeting of the American Bar Association.) “In Franklin County, they have been out in front on this for many years,” said Parent of the Kennedy School. “What’s going on in Massachusetts is one of the more exciting things happening nationally,” agreed David B. Rottman, associate director of research at the National Center for State Courts.

In the broader field of court innovation, Massachusetts has a number of other distinctions. The country’s first comprehensive, community-oriented domestic violence prevention and treatment program was founded in Quincy District Court. The award-winning program was recognized for both its extensive support services for victims, as well as its intense monitoring and treatment of offenders.

A number of other court innovations were launched in Massachusetts in the last two years. In Norfolk and Middlesex counties, a program began recently to speed up civil court cases and unclog superior courts by shifting all suits involving $25,000 or less from the superior to the district courts. This has freed the superior courts to focus on more serious criminal cases. Mediation programs, which attempt to resolve civil cases before trial, are under way at no cost to litigants in 28 district courts across the state.

The Supreme Judicial Court last year began a program to train court officials at all levels on substance abuse issues and to advise them of alternative treatment and testing programs for defendants. Now, all employees of the courts – from judges to junior clerks – are instructed to consider the role of substance abuse in cases they handle and direct offenders to treatment when appropriate – a move that applies the principles of drug courts to the broader court system. “These are major initiatives. These are not small things,” said Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the state Trial Court.

Most of the court innovations in Massachusetts are newer than those in New York, and New York’s initiatives tend to be more comprehensive in linking treatment and criminal justice. The four Massachusetts drug courts are probably the closest thing the state has to the Midtown Community Court in Manhattan.

The substance abuse directives from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court are only now beginning to filter through the system, and many employees have not yet completed the training programs. Administrators say it is too early to tell if the substance abuse initiative has had a significant impact. “They haven’t been in place long enough for us to get anything more than anecdotal information,” said Theda Leonard, the Supreme Judicial Court’s deputy director of policy development.

Marc Perlin, associate dean and professor at Suffolk University Law School, agrees that Massachusetts has been a leader in court innovation but that the changes are less focused than those in New York. “There are innovative programs going on in Massachusetts,” he said. “Typically, someone will come up with an idea, and a grant will be awarded. … But it’s sporadic, and you have to really look for it to understand it in perspective.”

No one player in the state has been the instigator of change. Some innovations have come from the bottom up, most notably the Quincy domestic violence project, which was fashioned by local court officials, including Judge Albert L. Kramer and then- District Attorney, now Congressman, William D. Delahunt. Other changes have come from the top down. In 1992, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a futuristic report called “Reinventing Justice,” an attempt to visualize how the courts should look in 2022. The report gave rise to the Franklin County task force and its spate of innovations.

Jerome S. Berg, administrator for the Massachusetts district courts, said the way innovation has occurred in the state judiciary has been difficult to characterize. “There are initiatives at the Supreme Judicial Court and some at the district court level. The Legislature has moved on some things. We have cases where individual courts or individual district attorneys have taken the initiative.”

What the Massachusetts court system does not have that the New York system does is the institutionalized force for change that the Center for Court Innovation provides. The agency enjoys the independence that comes from having an outside funding source, the non-profit Fund for New York foundation, plus the clout that comes with being a recognized part of the court system. “It is a huge advantage to be institutionalized in the system,” said Harrell of the Urban Institute. “The court bureaucracies traditionally lack the mandate and the authority to mess with each other’s business.”

Rottman of the National Center for State Courts said New York’s program is unique in the country. “I don’t think there has ever been anything anywhere that is centrally involved in the court system but is also allowed to innovate. There are projects like that, but I don’t think any at that level.”

The idea of trying to create some Massachusetts version of the Center for Court Innovation has not been discussed seriously by anyone of authority in the state’s court system. There is no logical candidate here for such an agency, like there was in New York when the Midtown Court began to replicate itself in other parts of the city. If one did emerge, it surely would face opposition from turf-conscious elements of the state’s court system.

“We’re dealing with a 300-year-old court system that has done things the same way for 300 years. Everybody is comfortable in their own little corner.”

William R. Keating, a former state senator who was elected Norfolk County district attorney last year, believes it probably is not such a good idea anyway to have a centralized agency mandating change. Better to have innovations bubbling up from the sometimes far-flung outposts of the court system, according to Keating, who chaired the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee and was vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “It’s against the current wave of pushing things to the community level. Innovations wouldn’t be as effective if they were instituted from the top,” Keating said.

For his part, Judge Merrigan admits to some envy about the clout that New York’s Center for Court Innovation wields. “I appreciate the support that the Supreme Judicial Court has given us, but it would be wonderful to be able to create more of a presence in the way they have in New York,” he said.

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Merrigan believes that the steps Massachusetts has taken toward innovation are encouraging, but he added that change has not come easy. “We’re dealing with a 300-year-old court system that has done things the same way for 300 years because that’s the way it’s always done things,” he said. “Everybody is comfortable in their own little corner.”

Robert Preer, a contributing writer for CommonWealth, lives in Milton.