Procedural Justice and the Red Hook Community Justice Center

Procedural Justice and the Red Hook Community Justice Center

November 10, 2016 | Robert V. Wolf, Director of Communications, Center for Court Innovation


The Center for Court Innovation brings together experts from a wide range of fields to make positive real-world changes in justice. In a recent push for change, we have made a significant investment in making courts more procedurally just.

Procedural justice is an idea that emerged in academia—its advocates include Tracey L. Meares and Tom R. Tyler, both of Yale Law School. The idea—supported by research—is that if participants in the justice system perceive that the process is fair and transparent, outcomes improve. For instance, defendants and litigants are more likely to comply with court orders and follow the law in the future, regardless of whether they “win” or “lose” their case.

The Center for Court Innovation has made procedural justice a guiding principle of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which is the subject of the Media for a Just Society-nominated video They Treated Me Like a Person. The Justice Center, located in Brooklyn, New York, is both a community court and resource center that works closely with community members, neighborhood groups, social service providers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement to forge new responses to problems.

Procedural justice permeates the Justice Center’s work on all levels, from its signage (which was designed to make the courthouse less intimidating to visitors and understandable to all populations, including non-English speakers and those with low literacy) to the ways in which staff interact with clients.

Evaluators have found that investment in procedural justice pays. More than 85% of criminal defendants report that their cases were handled fairly by the Justice Center—results that were consistent regardless of defendant background (e.g., race, sex, education) or case outcome. A study by the National Center for State Courts found that the Justice Center has reduced the use of jail and provided offenders with the support they need to exit the justice system for good.

These successes have made the Justice Center a model for reform across the country and internationally. From Hartford, Connecticut, to Austin, Texas, from England to Australia, inspired reformers have adapted the Justice Center model to local needs. However, most people cannot come to a remote neighborhood in southwest Brooklyn to witness the Justice Center’s work first hand, so we created They Treated Me Like a Person to tell the story.  

The 12-minute video takes viewers on a tour of the three-floor courthouse located in a former Catholic school. Procedural justice is prominently on display as the judge interviews defendants directly (rather than asking questions through their attorneys), praises them for their positive accomplishments (he asked a young man to approach the bench to shake his hand to congratulate him on getting a job), and patiently explains the rules of the court and the obligations of the defendants’ sentences.

A common theme emerged in all the stories of clients we interviewed—after years of cycling through the system, the Justice Center gave them a second chance and, more crucially, the support they needed to turn things around for themselves. Not only did they avoid jail, they spoke of returning to school and building careers to be able to help others like themselves.

We also interviewed community members, who told us that the reach of the Justice Center went far beyond the courtroom. For instance, when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Red Hook neighborhood in 2012, residents and local businesses lost their homes and livelihoods. The community banded together in that moment of crisis, and the Justice Center was at the forefront of these efforts, working on the ground to provide immediate relief and helping over the years to rebuild the community.

The film attempts to put a human face to a complicated academic theory. It is used at conferences and workshops on justice reform and is available on the Center for Court Innovation website and YouTube.  

There are signs that procedural justice is starting to catch on. For example, in the months since we created the film, the Department of Justice launched an initiative to spread procedural justice nationally in criminal courts. Additionally, procedural justice increasingly is becoming a topic when justice practitioners get together to share new ideas and hone their skills.

This is one in a series of blog posts written by 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award winners and finalists. Read more about the series here