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Remarks of Mary Lou Leary, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

International Conference on Community Courts

Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Dallas, TX

        Thank you. I really appreciate being invited to speak at the first-ever International Conference of Community Courts. I've been a strong supporter of the community justice approach for years. Your focus on prevention, problem solving, and public trust aren't just philosophically sound principles, they are proven approaches. As a former prosecutor, I've been on the frontlines and seen community policing, community prosecution, and community courts work.

        I'll talk a little more later about some of my early experiences, including a very memorable visit to a community court. First, though, I'd like to acknowledge the folks who made this event possible.

        Greg Berman, Julius Lang and the Center for Court Innovation staff are so passionate about providing innovative - yet practical - solutions to some of the most difficult problems facing our justice system. We are lucky to call them partners.

        I'd also like to thank Kim Norris and Jim Burch from our Bureau of Justice Assistance, or BJA. They've always understood how vital these efforts are for communities, and I appreciate their leadership and support for this conference.

        And, I want to acknowledge Melbourne, Australia's Neighbourhood Justice Center for co-sponsoring this conference. The international replications of the community justice model have had an enormous impact on this movement, and we are grateful for your involvement and that of the other countries here today.

        In our ongoing efforts to broaden and strengthen this movement, we have a strong ally in Attorney General Eric Holder. He was instrumental in developing a community prosecution pilot in D.C. in the 90s, and he and former Attorney General Reno have always been strong proponents for community justice. I had the pleasure of working for him then, and I'm proud to work for him now. He was unable to be with us today, but he wanted to send his heartfelt appreciation.

        Now, it's my pleasure to introduce, via video, Attorney General Eric Holder.

* * *

        You can see that you have a strong advocate in the Attorney General, and I can tell you that sentiment is shared throughout this Administration. In fact, the Office of National Drug Control Policy included the community court model in their recently released 2010 Strategy as one option for linking addicted offenders to treatment through the justice system.

        As the Attorney General mentioned, the community justice movement is also an essential part of a much larger commitment of this Justice Department: a focus on smart on crime approaches.

        At the Office of Justice Programs, one of our primary goals is to promote these approaches by focusing on evidence-based programs and ensuring that science plays a central role in everything we do. Community courts have been studied, evaluated, and shown to work. Many of you have been a part of these careful evaluations.

        Another of our key priorities is to continue to strengthen state, local, and tribal partnerships. Our work with CCI is a powerful partnership that helps us connect with courts - and your smart on crime approaches - across the country.

        Community justice programs are smart in their simplicity. They focus on two very simple goals: prevention and problem solving. And, the approach - engaging community stakeholders - is nothing short of revolutionary.

        When the community justice movement began with community policing, officers did something they'd never done before. They got out of their cars, knocked on doors, and met residents. They listened and learned, and they saw results.

        As this philosophy spread to prosecution and courts, it demonstrated its potential again and again. By engaging communities, criminal justice practitioners gained credibility and legitimacy. As community involvement increased, results improved.

        It took people like you - committed reformers - to devise an approach that helps our justice system fulfill its potential to improve communities. This can involve addressing low-level crimes and quality-of-life crimes, and it always includes combining punishment with assistance - whether that's drug treatment, job training, or social services.

        In short, community courts provide real community service. They have shown results not only because they work with the community, but also because they work for the community. Your courts are proactively providing individualized service to your communities.

        This, of course, means that there is no single model, and that's why we see such a diverse array of community courts. What works in Brooklyn might not in San Francisco. Good customer service is, after all, always customized.

        Your commitment to service has made the community court movement a success from the beginning. And, since the first court opened in 1993 in Midtown Manhattan, the Office of Justice Programs, through BJA, has supported the movement.

        Early on, BJA assistance helped the Midtown Court develop resources to spread the model. We also helped jumpstart planning for the Red Hook community court in Brooklyn. I feel lucky that I got the opportunity to be a part of this exciting development while working under my former boss Attorney General Reno.

        In fact, I had the unique opportunity to spend a day at Red Hook in the 90s when the movement was still in its infancy. You'll have the pleasure of hearing from Judge Alex Calabrese - who still presides over the court - later today.

        When I began to think about talking to you today, the first thing that came to mind was that visit, and what I can only describe as the most civilized courtroom I had ever seen.

        Judge Calabrese knew everyone who walked into his courtroom. He listened, and he provided encouragement. He also held offenders accountable by making it clear that he believed that they could, and would, meet the court's expectations.

        In addition to a Judge like none I had ever met, the court also featured a very different type of holding cell. Gone were the iron bars and squalid conditions. In their place was a clean, well-lit space secured with specially treated glass panels. I was impressed. By providing a different physical environment - one that made people feel more respected - Red Hook was setting the stage for a more productive court experience.

        I was proud of our involvement then, and I'm thrilled that it has continued. In 2005, BJA provided support for ten demonstration sites, including a number of jurisdictions represented here today. These sites generated important evidence about the effectiveness of community courts and helped facilitate the launch of several new courts and the expansion of others.

        Most recently, in fiscal year 2010, BJA provided support to CCI to continue training and technical assistance. In addition, BJA and CCI have established a community court mentor network. The selected courts in Hartford, Seattle, and here in Dallas now serve as mentors for jurisdictions throughout the country, making it easier for everyone to see a community court at work. This is a vital service, because, as I can attest, seeing a community court in action demonstrates its potential for addressing crime.

        You all know this better than anyone. It's the results you've seen in your courtrooms and communities that have really propelled this movement.

        And, evidence shows that community courts simultaneously help to reduce crime, streamline the justice process, change sentencing practices, solve individual problems, and increase public trust in the justice system. In fact, your case outcomes are snapshots of communities in transition and show the powerful potential of community courts.

        First, in the area of crime reduction, within 18 months of opening, the Midtown court helped reduce street prostitution by 56 percent and illegal vending by 24 percent. Those impressive results continue today.

        Melanie is one of the real people behind those statistics. She recently made her 24th appearance before the Midtown court for prostitution. It was her 72nd arrest. Her life had been shattered by sexual abuse and assault. She was homeless and had little hope for the future. Through mandated trauma-informed counseling, Melanie began her long process of recovery. She started to establish coping and life skills and was finally able to see a way out. Today, Melanie is living in transitional housing and participating in a Welfare to Work program. She hopes to soon be able to reunite with her children and is now a voluntary participant in ongoing counseling. This voluntary participation is, I think, a powerful indication of the excellent service Melanie is receiving. She has a choice, and she chooses to continue counseling.

        Second, in terms of streamlining the justice process, community courts promote immediate responses to crime. In fact, the Hartford Community Court was the first to combine visible community service with one-stop social services for low-level cases throughout an entire city. This comprehensive approach has helped reduce their citation-to-arraignment time from two weeks to just two business days.

        For instance, following a 20-year downward spiral with addiction, Janet was brought before the Hartford court on a prostitution charge and received help immediately. In just a short time, she began performing community service at a non-profit equestrian center. She became a model program participant, and for the first time saw recovery as a real option. Janet now works nearly full-time at the center, has her own apartment, and is rebuilding her relationships with her siblings and her son.

        Third, community courts are working to change sentencing practices, which will help close the revolving doors on our jails and prisons and address exploding corrections budgets.

        For example, Brett Taylor, a former defense attorney at Red Hook who is now with CCI, tells a compelling story about a repeat offender. Years before Red Hook opened, Brett represented James in a drug case and got him a one-year jail sentence. He filed the case under "success" and moved on. Ten years later, Brett found himself representing James again, this time at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. The judge immediately mandated residential drug treatment, and James finally got clean. James - now a painter and contributing member of the community - tells Brett that the court saved his life. Brett tells his peers about the court that changed his definition of success - from a one-year sentence to a lifetime of sobriety.

        Finally, of course, community courts are best known for their remarkable ability to help solve individual problems and increase public trust in the justice system. For instance, in 2009, the Midtown Court's job training program helped 58 participants find employment - all in the midst of an unprecedented recession. In 2010, the program has remarkably already placed 56 participants.

        One of those participants was Edward. He came to the Midtown court facing shoplifting charges, had a long criminal history, and was unemployed. As you know, reentering the workforce with a criminal background is always difficult, and Edward showed little interest and even less direction. He was required to participate in the court's onsite job training program for 20 days. After his required sentence, Edward remained in the program voluntarily, graduated, and was hired by a health food store. Ultimately, the initial job placement helped Edward establish a new career path. He is now an administrative assistant at a substance abuse treatment program. Edward found a purpose, got a job, and is now giving back to his community.

        These are just a few of the countless stories that you have no doubt heard, told, and retold. I join in this retelling today as a means of celebrating and honoring your many successes.

        Community courts have been changing lives and transforming communities for more than two decades now. But we have not yet tapped their full potential.

        As you begin your two days of training, I'd like to leave you with a challenge. Do not stop now. Continue to be innovative leaders and to apply evidence-based practices.

        In many ways, you serve as our laboratories, and I urge you to think of your projects as "evidence-generating." By testing new ideas on a smaller scale, you help expand our knowledge of what's most effective. So, never consider an idea too bold to try. It may be tomorrow's proven solution. And, any failed ideas are just opportunities to learn. In fact, one of your sessions will cover lessons to be learned from failure. I hope you will share your ideas - and all the lessons you learn here - with your peers and your communities.

        By providing real services to communities - services that respond to genuine needs and address urgent problems - you serve us all well. Thank you so much for your time today and your hard work every day.


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