The New York Police Department is in the midst of a transition to community policing, an approach that emphasizes the control of minor crimes against public order. By targeting these offenses and becoming more involved with the community, police officers combat the atmosphere of fear and lawlessness in which serious crimes flourish. But community policing faces a serious impediment in New York: The city’s already overburdened criminal courts are not capable of handling the flood of low-level cases that are likely to result from more-aggressive enforcement of laws against panhandling, disorderly conduct, graffiti, and other quality-of-life offenses.

A generation ago, a police officer who arrested a disorderly street character could bring the case to a neighborhood magistrates court, where it would be disposed of in an expeditious manner. Today all courts are centralized in each borough, and the workload is enormous. Many individual cases, particularly those involving low-level crime, can only be given short shrift. A police officer who makes an arrest can expect to be tied up for many hours and will likely be frustrated at the end, when the case is quickly dismissed or, at most, a token fine is assessed.

“To a large extent, fear of crime in New York City can be traced to the fact that, because the city’s Criminal Court is unable to effectively contend with its enormous caseload, lower-level crimes cannot be appropriately punished,” noted Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of the New York State Court of Appeals in his 1990 State of the Judiciary report. “The addition of police officers to the streets, without a large infusion of resources in the Criminal Court, will make the situation worse. “

Even with such an infusion, however, there would never be enough judges available to deal adequately with minor crimes. A centralized, bureaucratic court system, overburdened with serious violent crimes, will treat public-order offenses as trivial matters. Thus, the courts must be decentralized so that members of the community can more closely monitor the justice system and ensure that their concerns are treated seriously. In order to accomplish this at minimal cost, the Citizens Crime Commission has proposed the establishment of neighborhood branches of the lower Criminal Courts that would be presided over by volunteer judges drawn from members of the bar. Since the volunteers would be unpaid, there would be no obstacle to assigning a sufficient number of them to deal with the new caseload of public-order offenses. Neighborhood courts might also lighten the burden on the “downtown” courts, giving regular judges additional time to handle more serious matters. Community courts could impose alternative sentences, taking advantage of local facilities such as drug-treatment centers and homeless shelters. In addition, arresting officers could more easily attend trials in the neighborhoods they patrol, saving valuable police hours. Currently, the NYPD must pay officers—usually at the overtime rate of about $30 per hour—to travel between the precinct and the central courts.

Community courts would also foster neighborhood involvement in the greater justice system. Local residents could easily attend trials and observe how quality-of-life offenses are handled. Legal scholar Raymond Moley observed that neighborhood courts “may become a vastly important educational force in the community,” providing “a lesson in common sense, fair play, and respect for democratic institutions.” Although he was writing about the old magistrates courts sixty years ago, his insight remains fresh today.

The proposal for community courts won the support of the chief administrator of the New York State court system, and the Office of Court Administration drafted a bill that would permit unpaid community magistrates to hear cases in neighborhood branches of the New York City Criminal Courts. Under this proposal, the magistrates would be appointed by the Mayor and be required to have five years of legal experience, including two years of criminal law practice. Their jurisdiction would be limited to Class B misdemeanors and below, offenses that carry sentences of three months or less and do not require jury trials. Early in 1991, Governor Cuomo budgeted $1.4 million for an experimental community court.

The first community court was proposed for the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which in April 1991 had been brought to full strength as a model of community policing. This dovetailed nicely with the efforts of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who was reorganizing some of his operations to make them more neighborhood-oriented and planning to initiate community treatment programs for low-level offenders. As luck would have it, a beautiful old magistrates court sat nearly empty less than a mile from the precinct station house. Unfortunately, in the struggles that developed over the state judiciary budget in 1991, funds for an experimental community court were eliminated. While exploratory efforts continue in Brooklyn, community courts are on hold for now.

An experiment that involves some elements of community courts is, however, underway in the Times Square area. Last year, Times Square business leaders became interested in opening a court to help deal with the disorder endemic to their community. The proposal involved setting up a local Criminal Court arraignment part with a regular judge. Each day the court would handle some sixty defendants charged with crimes such as theft of service, prostitution, petty larceny, possession of stolen property, unlicensed peddling, and low-level drug offenses. As in the Brooklyn proposal, facilities would be available for alternative sentencing. “This would be a problem-solver court focusing on immediacy rather than severity of sentence,” says the plan’s principal author, John Feinblatt of the Fund for the City of New York.

Although the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office opposed the plan on the grounds that it would cost too much and duplicate existing services, Mayor Dinkins and Chief Judge Wachtler announced in July that the proposal would go ahead. A branch of the Criminal Court is scheduled to open early in 1993, next to a police station on West 54th Street.

Community courts are not without their detractors. Many lawyers, for example, are cool to the idea of traveling to outlying courts to appear before volunteer magistrates they have never seen before. More important, local residents are often uneasy about opening a facility that will bring criminals, many of whom are drug abusers, into the neighborhood. Local opposition, for example, prevented the Times Square court from being opened at its originally proposed site: the empty Longacre Theatre on 48th Street.

Such opposition can be overcome, however, if community courts serve as visible exemplars of justice and if they significantly improve the enforcement of laws that protect the quality of life. Community courts, like community policing, can be an effective antidote to the apathy and alienation from government that have become all too common.


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