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Tribal Justice Coming to Red Hook Court

By Alan Neuhauser | October 18, 2012 11:52am

RED HOOK — Brooklyn prosecutors and court administrators are preparing to dish a slice of frontier justice this winter at the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

The center, in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, has started training Red Hook residents to lead a Navajo-inspired "Peacemaking Program," an alternative adjudication process for children and teenagers who commit minor crimes in southwest Brooklyn. Training is expected to be completed next month, and the program is scheduled to launch Dec. 1.

"In the criminal justice system, we talk about a past act — that's all we're concerned about. Did you do it, or didn't you do it?" said Erika Sasson, Peacemaking Program director at the Center for Court Innovation.

"The peacemaking process looks at the feelings underlying the incident and looks toward the future — what's going to prevent this from happening in the future?"

The program is a one-year pilot funded by a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, Sasson said. It was introduced through the Tribal Justice Exchange, a part of the Center for Court Innovation.

Under the program, a young offender in Brooklyn, charged with any crime up to simple assault, can be referred to the peacemaking circle, comprised of Red Hook community leaders recruited and trained by the Justice Center and the Center for Court Innovation.

In consenting to the program, defendants "accept responsibility" for their alleged crimes, Sasson said, as well as whatever restitution the peacemakers decide. Victims and prosecutors, however, must also agree to the program.

"Voluntariness is important — there's no coercion involved," Sasson explained. "Peacemakers say force doesn't change behavior. You have to say that it happened in order for us to have a conversation."

Defendants and victims then join the circle together to discuss the incident and its aftermath with two to four peacemakers. Community members who feel they've been affected by the crime — such as store owners concerned about a shoplifting incident, or residents who feel unsafe following a robbery — can also contribute to the conversation.

The resolutions that are handed down by the circle leaders could range widely, Sasson said, from writing an apology letter to requiring the defendant to attend more peacemaking sessions.

"It's not about power," she described. Instead, the goal "is a restorative process."

Peacemaking circles are used to resolve both youth and adult conflicts and justice issues on tribal reservations across the United States, Sasson described. The pilot program, however, will be restricted to young offenders, and it will largely draw influence from the Navajo peacemaking program, a "very established" and "well-known leader in this field," Sasson said.

To learn about the practice, members of the Center for Court Innovation, as well as Red Hook Community Justice Center Judge Alex Calabrese, attended round-table discussions with tribal justice leaders and attended peacemaking sessions in Arizona to observe the tribes' "best practices."

"We were very moved by the stories that we heard of people who were not being reached by the traditional justice system being able to change through this particular process," Sasson said. The Brooklyn DA's Office, she added, was "really open to it." 

After obtaining the Bureau of Justice Assistant grant, Sasson and Brett Taylor, deputy director of the Tribal Justice Exchange, set out to recruit peacemakers, focusing on community leaders and respected older residents such as Wally Bazemore, 60, who has lived in Red Hook on and off since 1955.

"I figured we've tried everything else, why not try this?" said Bazemore, whose maternal grandmother also happened to be a Cherokee Indian. "I've broken up a few fights in my life. I hope my reputation would precede me as fair, because I'm only in favor of the betterment of the community.

The Peacemaking Program, he said, could pose unique challenges in Red Hook, a roughly one-square-mile neighborhood of about 10,000 residents where peacemakers will almost certainly cross paths with those they've seen at peacemaker circles.

"We're going to see these people everyday, we're going to decide their cases," Bazemore said. "If you don't have a good rapport, and if you feel we were not fair, there could be some spillover."

Nevertheless, he continued, that aspect of familiarity — being heard by neighbors — is one of the program's main strengths, and perhaps the key to its success. Sasson agreed.

"The close-knit nature of that community, the fact that there are a lot of known community leaders who are interested in making their community better," she said, "all of that seemed to point to Red Hook as a great place to start."