Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this website may contain images and voices of people who have died.
Chief Justice Victoria, Director for the Centre of Justice Innovation, and internationally renowned Judge Alex Calabrese ask a simple question: why don’t communities across Australia have their own Neighbourhood Justice Centre?
Ten years ago, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre opened its doors with a daunting mission ahead of it: include citizens in every facet of justice and improve the quality of community life for everyone living in Yarra.
Based on the Red Hook Community Center Brooklyn, the NJC was planned to be a two-and-half-year concept court.
Today, the centre works at the forefront of justice practices, has helped thousands of people turn their lives around, is the first International Community Mentor Court, and leads the way in justice innovation.
The NJC takes a holistic approach to tackling the underlying causes of crime, rehabilitation, victim reparation, and public safety.
Pertinently, our approach works best with high risk offenders, which is telling as the community justice framework was designed for low-level crimes.
Delivering NJC’s anniversary key note address, Judge Alex Calabrese, Red Hook Community Center said the NJC provides the best example of a community-centric criminal justice response.
The heart of the court is offender rehabilitation and victim repair.
While giving context to why people offend and requiring people account for their actions, people receive therapeutic and practical assistance including counselling, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health support, and housing support.
At the same time, victims of crime receive the necessary care and support to fully recover.
Stepping out of the court the NJC collaborates with citizens, welfare services, and government to resolve the conditions that lead to, or exacerbate, criminal activity.
Also speaking at the event, Chief Justice the Honourable Marilyn Warren said the NJC has ‘tackled and solved the most challenging justice problems’ within an atmosphere and ethos of ‘help, support and protection’.
The NJC works wholly within community justice, a public safety framework of the criminal justice system that sets as its goal the improvement of the quality of community life by involving citizens in all aspects of justice.
The NJC is currently the only centre of its kind in Australia.
Numbers say it all
Focusing on rehabilitation has resulted in a 25% lower rate of reoffending than other Magistrate’s Courts, and 3 times more successfully completed Community Corrections Orders that ‘traditional’ Magistrate’s Courts*.
“The Australian Institute of Criminology found the NJC decreases reoffending than other court, with the greatest difference been in the most difficult, high risk category,” said Judge Calabrese.
NJC Magistrate David Fanning the “the presence of a community justice centre is a notable factor” in the 31%* drop in crime in Yarra, a drop greater than see in comparable local government areas.
Judge Calabrese said the Australian Institute of Criminology evaluation of the NJC put into numbers what community justice staff around the world knew but couldn’t document: that community justice works.
“The NJC stood out as a beacon of success a high volume court using problem-solving principles in all types of cases, and shows that these principles can and will show have better results across the board—for court, community, victims, offenders and tax payers,” said Judge Calabrese.
“By using a therapeutic, community problem-solving approach, community courts deliver more effective case management than traditional courts.
What does this mean? Reduced crime, reduced reoffending, and reduced use of incarceration,” said Judge Calabrese.
Meeting the mark
No court in Victoria has been the subject to the level of rigorous evaluation and scrutiny as the NJC.
Described by Judge Calabrese as ‘seminal moment for the community justice movement’, in 2012 the NJC was the first full-service, high-volume court to be evaluated.
Conducted by Flinders University the figures were astounding. As residential burglaries fell 26%, recidivism fell, and every dollar spent saved two dollars in benefits, and community confidence in the justice system increased.
The 2015 Productivity Commission Report that found adult prison beds cost between $250,000 and $500,000 for infrastructure, and about $100,000 to run each year.
As the number and cost of prison beds (and prisoners) continues to escalate, the NJC’s community-centric approach is a proven and starkly cost effective model.
Government–initiated evaluations have included Boston Consulting and KPMG.
Innovation & new practices
In recent years, the NJC developed Australia’s first Online Family Violence Intervention order application. Now anyone who needs to apply for an intervention order can do so when and where it’s safest for them to do so.
And the centre also introduced Australia’s first court users’ information system. MyCase gives our court users real time contact with their lawyers, case workers, and court staff so they can best manage their time at court.
Guest speaker at the 10th anniversary, Director of RMIT’s Centre for Justice Innovation Rob Hulls noted, it’s tempting to take the lazy option and insist on a lock ‘‘em up and throw away the key approach’.
“In fact, the toughest option is to be smart – to address those issues which are causing offending and reoffending, to find multidisciplinary ways of responding to the plethora of factors which bring people into contact with the law,” said Hulls.
Surpassing all expectation, the question remains: what’s the future of community-focused justice in Australia?