'Commission Flats' by Kerry O'Keefe

Introducing community justice

Community justice is a public safety framework for transforming high-crime, socially disadvantaged places into neighbourhoods fit for people to live, work and raise families. 

Using the framework, justice agencies use interventions that fit the needs and characteristics of the communities of people and neighbourhoods in need of restoration and rehabilitation.

It's best understood by breaking it into its two parts: community justice as a concept, and community justice in action.

As a concept, community justice is a philosophical framework for thinking about how criminal justice can transform societies. That is, it provides rationales for why justice can do more than deal with the aftermath of crime by punishing wrong-doing, it can play an active role in preventing crime from happening again or in the first place. In action, it provides a toolkit of practices to do so.  

The neighbourhoods and community it seeks to improve are where traditional, one-size-fits-all justice does not work. Places where:

  • crime rates are high
  • the conditions that lead to crime are prevalent 
  • a significant proportion of residents are on the downward spiral of repeat offending
  • justice interventions are intense―policing is intense, courts are busy, people are in and out of jail.

These are called high impact locations because these are where community justice is needed most and has the highest impact. And note, a high impact location may be a small neighbourhood in an otherwise thriving community, even a town. 

As no two disadvantaged communities are alike there is no one off-the-shelf model of community justice.  Instead community justice requires us to identify and respond to the characteristics of each high impact neighbourhood separately. For example, if another NJC opened in say, a small rural town, it may replicate some of what we do at NJC Collingwood, but would also fit the criminogenic and/or socio-economic conditions unique to the town.

Using community justice practices, police, courts, corrections and government work with each other and many others in high impact locations to:

  • rehabilitate people who offend 
  • repair the harms caused by crime 
  • prevent crime from happening again, or in the first place.

The reason community justice thinks and acts as it does is because it is an amalgamation of social justice with criminal justice and guided by the principles of equality and human rights.  

Core elements 

Place matters

Community justice focuses on high impact locations as a matter of social justice. 

Simply put, people raised in financially comfortable homes in well-resourced, safe neighbourhoods more easily satisfy their needs (good health, education, job opportunities, disposable income etc) than people living hand-to-mouth in depressed places.

By extension, places where schools are under-resourced, where public spaces are in decay, where job prospects are low and unemployment rates high, where there are, for example, more gambling venues than cinemas, are far more likely to be, or have within their borders, concentrations of crime.

Community justice steps in to such places to repair the damage caused by crime and to prevent it happening again by focusing on individual offending and by addressing the social conditions that give rise to crime at a broader social level―'places and cases' justice. It's a departure from traditional justice in that it is proactive as well as reactive crime mitigation.

Informal social controls

For community justice family, friends, neighbourly networks, social organisations and friendship relations are the foundations of public safety. 

In community justice parlance, these are called informal social controls, and because they are deemed far more important than form social controls (police, courts, corrections) for public safety, one of the aims of the framework is to support them to flourish.

For the NJC 'place and case' comprises a problem-solving court, resolving conflict through non-court related resolution processes, and working on social advancement projects with services across the community.  We also attend community events, run a soccer program for young people in partnership with police, and support a range of community development programs.

Solve problems (step beyond blame)

Traditional criminal justice is a 'blame and sanction' institution: a person is found guilty of a crime (culpable) and wrong for having done it (blameworthy).1. In this paradigm, the problem is the person who did something wrong and as they are the problem, they should be punished.

Community justice—with its whole-of-person, whole-of-community perspective—sees the problem of crime as a problem to be solved, not just a problem to be punished. It's a point of divergence from traditional justice that challenges us to rethink victim and offender.

In the community justice framework, an offender may be recognised as a victim too. Not of the crime committed of course, but of circumstances which contributed to offending behaviour, for instances, complex, untreated mental health conditions, addiction, and familial neglect. At the NJC for example, people are provided with a raft of therapeutic pathways to right these wrongs, as it where.

A community may be the victim of social neglect which can be said to be a crime against social justice.

Victims may be created by punitive justice. Consider the effects on young teenagers, mothers, and schools when a significant proportion of fathers or brothers are in and out of jail.

Community justice asks questions: how has the crime impacted the victim? How will a criminal sanction affect the offender or their family? What social conditions catalyse crime?

Outside the narrow parametres of ‘blame and sanction’ justice crime becomes a problem to be solved by multiple agencies and multiple actions. Problem-solving is not easy and reforms happens slowly, but it's central to improving the quality of community life.

Decentralise authority, share accountability

Broadly speaking, public safety is maintained by 'formal controls' ― law enforcement, courts, corrections and government agencies― that are bureaucratic, hierarchical and use standardised procedures.

Community justice, with its pro-and reactive problem-solving agenda, cannot operate in such a rigid system, which is why a central element of the framework is to give justice officials autonomy to try new approaches through multiple, typically highly localised, partnerships with other services, residence, or other permutations that suit the problem to be solved.The NJC neatly illustrates this.

Under this roof, the pillars of justice work collaboratively. The police prosecutors work with defence lawyers and correctional services on outcomes that serve the needs of justice and the needs of offenders who need help to climb out of the spiral of offending, and court works with support services, and support services work with everyone. 

Decentralising authority can also open up justice to new and often creative approaches to improving public safety. For decades, police have run excellent community engagement programs, and community justice centres such as the exemplary Red Hook Community Center gives teenagers responsibility for running Youth Court (External link) to hear cases involving young people aged 10 to 18 who have been cited for low-level offenses such as vandalism, fare evasion, assault, and truancy.

Adding value

Mainstream justice maintains public safety by removing people who break the law from the community, and to varying degrees, attending to the harm caused to victims and rehabilitating offenders. In fairness this is a crude summation of a complex system doing complex work but it's accurate nonetheless. 

In the community justice framework, public safety involves proactively tackling the conditions that if left unchecked, will led to crime, supporting communities develop the resilience to bounce back from crime, and supporting ex-offenders to return home. In this dynamic framework, justice shares accountability for improving society.

In community justice "people are free to walk the streets without fear of harassment by anyone criminal or agents of the state. Parents have confidence that there are good options for their children' daily activity; and young people feel they have good choices of safe and satisfying ways of passing the time. There is vibrant social (and economic) commerce, and people feel free to pursue their dreams and aspirations." (2)

To be clear, communities can attain these things  without the interventions of justice. But community justice's contribution to creating such a community is public safety and public order, and it takes a more generous view of public safety than seeing it through crime statistics. 

"Public safety is not represented by an electric fence, a metal detector, or a barred window; rather [it] exists where there is open and free social commerce without personal fear." (3) And core to the idea of community justice is that this version of public safety is a public aim."

David Karp, an elder statesman of community justice, reminds us that aim poses challenges.

For a start, communities are composed of a diverse array of individuals, and layers of competing interests, which forces community justice practitioners to reflect diversity in ways that are equitable and democratic. It's not easy to attend to the needs of many, rather than simply answer to the rights of the few. It's hard to avoid treating citizens who offend as a kind of enemy, and aiming for a high quality of life is a worthwhile pursuit but it's easy to exclude certain community members from this vision.

Improving community life is not simple, which is why the principles of equality and democracy are so important to community justice.


As a concept, a toolkit of practices, and no out-of-the-box model, community justice is hard to define in one pithy statement, a neat way of looking at it is this:

  • Place matters justice should tailor to the needs of specific people and places 
  • Solve problems address public safety issues proactively and reactively
  • Decentralise authority, share accountability police, courts, and corrections work best where direct action is needed most
  • Involve people citizens must participate in justice to get the best just outcome
  • Improve community life justice must improve the quality of life for the community overall.


Community justice emerged in the early 1980s in the United States of America with the ground-breaking community policing movement, the principles of which are alive and well in what is still an evolving movement.

Since the early days of community policing, community justice has morphed into court centres wholly dedicated to it (of which the Neighbourhood Justice Centre is one) and its practices are adopted by courts, police, governments and communities looking for evidence-led solutions to complex public safety issues.

Further reading

There's a great deal more we could say about the framework we work in, including a discussion of the challenges, but alas,is a website not a book so we highly recommend Community Justice by Clear, Hamilton, and Cadora.



(1) Community Justice, by Clear, Hamilton, and Cadora (2011). p.21

(2) ibid pg.131

(3) ibid pg. 131