Community Court A Different Model For Criminal Justice
November 24, 2008
By 11 a.m. on a typical day, Judge Raymond Norko has already seen more than a dozen defendants at the community courthouse on Washington Street: a morning arrest for an open bottle of alcohol, middle-of-the-night loiterers in Hartford parks, train track trespassers.
After brief, often light-hearted, conversations with Norko, the offenders are sent out of the courtroom in Hartford to meet with counselors who determine if they need social services.
The loiterers and litterers probably won't. But in some cases — like the person stealing to support a drug habit — this might be the first time they are offered help for the underlying problems that cause them to break the law.
It's been 10 years since Norko heard his first case in Hartford's community court, and it continues to be a different criminal justice model. In addition to social services being offered in the courthouse, almost every defendant is given a sentence of community service.
When Hartford Community Court opened, it was only the third in the country, and the first such court to cover an entire city full time. It initially was funded with city, state and federal funds, but is now operated out of the state judicial system budget.
"It was touch and go at the beginning," said Norko, who opened the court in 1998, worked there until 2002 and returned last month. "I had a time convincing police officers they should be arresting people for these crimes."
"These crimes" were the minor quality-of-life issues like loitering, public urination and littering. Compared with the more serious crimes heard at Superior Court, these were child's play. And they often were simply dismissed by court officials, giving police officers little incentive to invest the time in making the arrests in the first place.
But more than a decade ago, Hartford residents started pushing city and state leaders to start a community court to deal with the small crimes that threatened their quality of life. There was a similar court in Manhattan that appeared to be working, so why not try it in Hartford?
"We would plot and talk when we were tired about these prostitutes on the street," said South End community organizer Hyacinth Yennie. "Now, if a kid gets caught drinking ... community court. Then they have to come back and do community service."
Because it was only the third community court in the country, Norko had to shape the program from the ground up, drawing in players from all areas of the criminal justice system and convincing them to become invested in the notion of sweating the small stuff.
"Everyone has to believe in it," Norko said recently. "If you're uncomfortable dealing with drunks, if you think that's a waste of judicial time, then this isn't the place for you."
The court was crowded recently with offenders waiting for their one- or two-day community service sentences. Once they complete the service hours, their records are wiped clean. For that reason, many people declined to give their names when talking about their experiences at the court. Others said they had been wrongfully arrested and planned to fight the charges — an option all defendants have at the court.
But for repeat offenders, the system aims to help them through whatever problems led them to offend in the first place. A drug addict might be led to addiction services; prostitutes can enroll in a specialized counseling program; petty thieves can apply for food stamps at the courthouse.
The community court idea was circulating in the early 1980s, around the time an article about minor crime titled "Broken Windows," written by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. The theory was, if you leave one window broken, eventually they will all be broken. By 1993, the first community court was created in New York.
The model has caught on in the United States, as well as abroad, and more than 60 community courts operate worldwide. And under President-elect Barack Obama, criminal justice experts say, the United States' community court system is likely to grow.
"I think it's poised to have a big future ahead of it," said Greg Berman, the executive director for the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit criminal justice think tank in New York. "Everything that Obama has said on the stump about crime suggests that this is the kind of approach he will eat up with a spoon."
Berman said the model provides new responses to low-level crime and draws in community members as stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
"There has been a dramatic erosion in public trust to government, and it has certainly affected the justice system," Berman said.
"One way to get the public feeling better is to engage them in the process. Every community court does it differently, but I think every community court can engage the community."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at