How Manhattan's Community Court Became A National Model

By Rachel Rippetoe | March 8, 2024, 7:09 PM EST ·

A judge of Asian descent in black robes sits behind the bench. On the wall, it reads Manhattan Community Court.

Judge John Zhuo Wang presides over a session of the Midtown Community Justice Center in February. Founded as the Midtown Community Court in 1993, it was designed to provide social services and other programming to low-level criminal offenders as an alternative to more serious penalties. In the 30 years since, it's become a model for similar courts throughout the country. (Ben Jay | Law360)

The courtroom inside the Midtown Community Justice Center in Manhattan lacks the high-ceilinged, marble-walled grandiosity of some of its more traditional counterparts — it looks more like a modest chapel.

Judge John Zhuo Wang sits behind a white bench, much lower to the ground than the broad wooden ones inside the New York County criminal courthouse downtown. He welcomes a defendant to his courtroom, thanking him for making the trek to West 54th Street. The focus of the hearing is not on the details of the man's misdemeanor, but a check-in on his progress in the program he must complete in order to avoid a more serious criminal penalty. Will one more meeting with a social worker suffice before his case can be adjudicated? The prosecutor sitting at a desk near the bench nods her head. Then an employee of the justice center approaches the defendant warmly, eventually leading him upstairs to a sunnier room where he will discuss how the plan to get his life back on track is going.

For Mike Panasitti, who went through the mental health component of the Midtown Community Court, a subset of New York City Criminal Court, in March last year, the court was like no other he'd ever been in.

"It was a very hospitable place," he said. "The environment was not gloomy or anything. It didn't seem institutional. Even the district attorney did not give me a sense of vindictiveness or [of being] out to get me."

The Midtown Community Court, which recently marked its 30th anniversary, was founded as a first-of-its-kind "problem-solving court" designed to keep the city's jails and courtrooms from overcrowding. Its success over the last three decades has inspired similar models to quietly spread to almost every state in the country.

There are at least 70 community courts in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Center for Justice Innovation, which partners with the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance as well as city and state governments to run or build many of these courts. And with a boost from the bureau's community courts initiative, new ones will soon launch in six municipalities, including Salt Lake City and Meridian, Mississippi. Another is set for the Upper Sioux Community tribal headquarters in Granite Falls, Minnesota.

The concept of a community court has changed over time. The more traditional model is a municipal court with a bent toward restorative justice: A defendant pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge, and his sentence is usually one of community service or self-improvement. And once he's completed that sentence, his slate can be wiped clean, removing the fines and fees and potential jail time that, like glue, can often end up sticking a person to the criminal justice system for a long time.

More broadly, the courts seek to embed the justice system into their communities, lowering the high tower that judges and law enforcement officers sit on and bringing an array of stakeholders into the fold. And so the courts are nimble, ever-changing. Some have been established to address specific problems such as mental health, drug use or housing. And many have expanded into serving as more broad-based community centers, offering resources and programming to people who have not been charged with a crime.

"There are people in every community who see that continuing to push people into the system ... is not the answer," said Kelly Doyle, the director of national training and technical assistance for the Center for Justice Innovation. "And so [by] having alternatives that can avoid those collateral consequences of the system and really help people get the resources they need, you end up with better outcomes."

The Midtown Community Court

At its inception in 1993, the Midtown court centered on a changing Times Square, whose business sector had begun cleaning up to erase the area's reputation as a hub for crime, prostitution and homelessness.

At the same time, the city was also struggling with an unsustainably high jail population. In 1993, the average daily jail population in New York City was 18,623, according to the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. In 2019, by comparison, it was just 7,365.

The court blended a "broken windows" style of criminal justice, believing that increased convictions on minor charges would reduce crime in a community, with the idea that a more restorative and social service-oriented approach to punishment would keep people out of both more serious trouble and the city's crowded jails.

Handling misdemeanors from a handful of precincts in Midtown Manhattan, the court doled out sentences that usually took the defendants' living situation as well as their physical and mental health into consideration.

"It was a really revolutionary idea that maybe those folks didn't have to go to jail for 15 days and instead, they could do some sort of programming, or community service," said Danielle Mindess, the court's director.

A 1999 report by the Minnesota House of Representatives looking into the Midtown Community Court as a model found that of the cases disposed of in the community court, a vast majority of defendants received sentences of community or social service. Accompanying the lighter sentencing was a lower rate of dismissals. The study found that compared to the downtown criminal court, the Midtown court had far fewer immediate dismissals, but also far fewer short-term jail sentences.

From New York to Oregon

The Midtown project wasn't initially met with overwhelming support. The Manhattan district attorney's office opposed the development of the court, according to the 1999 report from the Minnesota House, arguing that it was unfair to spend extra resources on a single neighborhood rather than improving the boroughwide court.

The Legal Aid Society also publicly opposed the court, concerned that the smaller, more paternalistic sentences would lead to an increase in prosecuting petty offenses.

But Midtown soon became a model for other courts throughout the city, including the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was founded in 2000 and is housed in a renovated schoolhouse near the Brooklyn waterfront.

According to a study of the Brooklyn justice center conducted in 2013 by the National Center for State Courts, Red Hook was only the second community court in the world to report clear success in reducing recidivism rates, following a community court in Melbourne, Australia. The study showed that those who had their case processed through Red Hook were 10% less likely to be arrested again within a two-year period. And the results were even better for juvenile defendants, who were 20% less likely to be rearrested within two years.

Overall, there was a sharp decrease in local arrests for both felonies and misdemeanors in Red Hook after the court was built, and a similar pattern was not observed in adjacent police precincts, according to the report.

As the model caught on across New York, it didn't take long for it to spread to other cities and even suburban and rural areas across the country. By the late 1990s, there were community courts brewing in Portland, Oregon; Hartford, Connecticut; Minneapolis; Memphis, Tennessee; and Austin, Texas.

But when a group of municipal court judges in Eugene, Oregon, started looking into establishing a community court in 2014, they knew that New York's model wasn't going to be a one-size-fits-all.

"There was no way that Eugene was going to be able to do the same thing that these other folks in New York were able to do," Presiding Judge Greg Gill told Law360. "No. 1: super limited resources out here. And No. 2: a lot of the services that were provided for folks in these other courts out east just weren't organic to either [our] city or the court."

They visited a community court in Spokane, Washington, and the vibe was entirely different, Judge Gill said. Instead of working out of a real courthouse, the court was essentially just a folding table and chairs inside a public library. The city partnered with local providers who set up shop alongside a judge and a small court staff.

"A judge was just sitting there with the defendant right across the table, eye-to-eye, person-to-person, saying, 'You've been cited with this, what can we do to try to take away a lot of the underlying issues that led you to this spot?'" Judge Gill said. "That aspect of neutrality, bringing the community and these local service providers in to be a part of the program, really struck a chord with us right away.

In 2016, the city received funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which offers grants to a handful of cities every other year to either build or enhance a community court. Using the funds to set up a program modeled after Spokane's, city leaders conducted research and met with a number of community stakeholders to identify what kind of misdemeanor "quality of life" crimes seemed to be the most common and burdensome, and where the majority of that petty crime was concentrated. And like Spokane, they also set up inside a public library, Judge Gill said.

Judge Gill said much of the court's early success could be attributed to the host of local social service providers made available for defendants to meet with before or after their hearing.

"The funny thing about that is all of these providers are available to everybody anyway," Judge Gill said. "There's nothing there that is super special. It's just the fact that they're all in one room. And the court helps someone stay accountable by putting this case plan together, and providing that structure for it to happen."

Like Red Hook, Eugene's community court seemed to reduce recidivism, according to a 2020 report conducted by the National Center for State Courts that found that participants in the community court were less likely to be arrested or incarcerated within a year of completing the court's diversionary program than defendants who chose to go through the traditional court system.

The Impact

Defendants who have gone through the Midtown court say it can defy expectations of how the criminal justice system operates.

Mike Panasitti was arrested last March for destruction of private property. A California resident, Panasitti said he had traveled to New York in the midst of a psychotic episode. After smashing a plate glass window at a hotel on the Lower East Side, he was apprehended by police and taken downtown, where he told his public defender that he was having mental health problems.

He was terrified of being sent to Rikers Island, he said, but entering Midtown's mental health court felt far less intimidating than he was expecting.

"Even though the judge had an elevated seat, the wooden benches and stuff reminded me more of a Baptist Church of my youth," Panasitti said. "It was just kind of a cozy, not intimidating or cold building. There was something very homey about it."

Panasitti met with a social worker, Melanie Hodor, who helped him complete an assessment going through items like housing, employment, education and mental health trauma, and then she made a recommendation to the court about how many sessions Panasitti would need to complete before his case could be adjudicated.

"It wasn't just institutionalized, it was highly tailored to my needs," he said. "Midtown Community Court worked with my aspirations and needs and desires. I told them that I was a writer and that I had stories posted online on a story-writing platform. I had stuff that I was working on that getting incarcerated would not have allowed me to accomplish and continue with."

Panasitti said he was able to complete the sessions virtually from his home in California. When he "graduated" from the program a month and a half later, he said, he didn't want to have contact with the criminal justice system ever again.

"The experience really was the breaking point for me that finally opened my eyes: I don't want to live this kind of life anymore," Panasitti said. "I don't want to do these kinds of things anymore to myself, to my family, or disappoint people who have represented me in court. It would be shameful to do something now, after having the case dismissed."


A banner that reads 'Midtown Community Court' in modernist typeface flies on an old stone building, with 'VII DISTRICT POLICE COURT' etched into the building's stone facade

The Midtown Community Justice Center, formerly known as the Midtown Community Court, on 54th Street in Midtown Manhattan. (Ben Jay | Law360)

Today, the Midtown Community Justice Center and its services look entirely different than they did 30 years ago. Many of the most common low-level misdemeanors heard in the court in the '90s — marijuana possession, turnstile jumping and prostitution — are not prosecuted by the district attorney's office anymore. Across the city, misdemeanor arrests have been dropping. In 2013, 265,869 people were arrested for misdemeanors. By 2019, the number had fallen by half, to 128,686, according to data from the mayor's office.

Thus, the court's caseload was already slowing down when the pandemic hit and shut down its services entirely — many of which still haven't returned. But the court's staffers continued working in different capacities, Mindess said. They developed several programs including street outreach, where they could assess the needs of the homeless and migrants within the precincts they used to serve in Midtown.

In March 2022, the court reopened for one day a week as part of a citywide initiative to establish mental health courts in every borough. Instead of only serving offenders in a particular area, the court now sees cases based on boroughwide referrals of defendants struggling with mental illness.

Getting the mental health court started was a challenge, Judge Wang said. For one thing, he noted, there were questions about how many people would actually be referred to the program given that a guilty plea is often required in order to access programming, and the kind of low-level misdemeanors the court typically deals with can frequently end up being dismissed.

"There's a little bit of a tension between the legal incentives for defendants and the therapeutic benefits of programming or services that are offered," Judge Wang said. "We had to talk to defense attorneys about why it was worth it to come to this court, and we did that through a number of different stakeholder meetings."

This is a challenge that community courts face across the country, said Doyle of the Center for Justice Innovations, which can also make it tricky to match a person's programming with the severity of their crime.

"You have to ensure you're not pulling people into court in order to cure them of all their challenges," she said. "People often suffer from their addiction for 20 years, but they may be in front of a community court for something like trespassing or an ordinance violation like loitering, and it would not be appropriate to keep the person in treatment for longer than they normally would have contact with the system."

This is something the Midtown court has had to reckon with, Mindess said.

The court's programming is metered by sessions, which can range from a few weeks to six months. Someone with a lighter crime might have only three sessions, whereas someone who was on the verge of a felony could do 10. But if someone needs more help than what their sentence provides, Mindess said, they'll often stay in touch with their social worker long beyond their "graduation" from the program.

"It's a far more collaborative process than you find in the normal court, just sort of mandating down what needs to happen," she said.

About two months after the mental health court opened, referrals began trickling in, Judge Wang said. But they've ramped up in the last year. As of January, 341 people had been referred to the court since it opened. Of those, 177 have completed their required sessions. Judge Wang said that of those who actually made it to the court for their assessment with a social worker, only a handful didn't graduate.

"So it just speaks to the quality of care and support that people feel," he said. "They feel like somebody was listening to them, somebody actually was genuinely wanting to support them and help them."

The Future

Eugene's community court looks quite different today than it did when it started in 2016. For one, it's no longer in a library. The city eventually converted the bottom floor of its courthouse into an open space that Judge Gill said still retains the more relaxed environment of the original court.

And with additional state funding, Judge Gill said, the court is entering an era he is wildly excited about. It's partnered with nonprofit Laurel Hill Center, which connects multiple local community shelters and also runs a range of social programs. The nonprofit will provide at least a dozen of the most high-risk defendants with a range of services and also shelter.

"So someone is cited to our courts, they fall into this category, they decide to do this diversionary program, then ostensibly we'd be able to have them sheltered and have them work with one single provider to increase the likelihood of their success exponentially," he said. "We're really excited to see where that new piece goes."

Judge Wang also has dreams for the Midtown court, which in March last year opened for an additional weekday to handle misdemeanor charges for defendants aged 19 to 25 across the borough. He said he'd like to follow Eugene's lead and ditch the bench in lieu of a large round table where all the parties involved in a case can talk to each other at eye level as collaborators. Even now, Judge Wang said, he'll often leave the bar and sit down in the pews next to the people he's presiding over.

"I just talk to them a bit about the fact that this could have looked differently," he said. "Maybe in another era, you would have just been arrested. And then that arrest would have meant you would go downtown, you'd be held, bail could have been set. This model is meant to address the fact that for many of them, jail is not appropriate. It causes much more harm than good. We're a safe space, essentially, a safe and supportive space for these folks."

--Graphics by Ben Jay. Editing by Karin Roberts.

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