'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. 

Community justice is best understood as a concept, as a way of thinking about the social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental factors that adversely affect places and communities of people.

By see the bigger picture, community justice guides justice practitioners work with the citizens and organisations in the places directly affected by crime to find sustained, sustainable solutions to crime and social disadvantage.

Justice by design

Community justice is designed for 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.

We call these communities high impact locations because it's in such places that community justice is needed most and has the highest impact. And note, a high impact location may be few neighbourhoods in otherwise thriving local government area, it could be a town. 

As no two disadvantaged communities are alike, community justice prompts the justice system to tailor services and solutions to fit the needs of each one specifically. 

For example, our court hears serious offending matters. In Spokane, USA, their community justice centre hears court in the local library, and in Baltimore, the community justice centre doesn't even have a court. These are vastly different responses, but each one is based on getting the best outcome for the community as a whole: offender, victim, community.

While we don't always share the same practices, community justice practitioners share a central goal: to transform high impact locations into flourishing communities. Broadly speaking, this happens through:

  • rehabilitating people who offend 
  • repairing the harms caused by crime 
  • preventing crime from happening again, or in the first place.

And we do these things by:

  • Involving citizens in finding solutions 
  • Reconceptualising the role of justice in the community
  • Solving problems holistically and sustainably

In all, community justice is an amalgamation of social justice and criminal justice so it draws on principles of equality, democracy and fundamental human rights.  

Core elements 

Place matters

We are all the products of where we live. Simply put, residents of well-resourced, safe neighbourhoods have better health, life expectancy, education and job opportunities,

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 reduce crime rates by focusing on individual offending (reactive crime prevention) and by addressing the social conditions that give rise to crime at a broader social level (proactive crime prevention).

Solve problems (step beyond blame)

Community justice—with its whole-of-person, whole-of-community approaches—is about sustained positive change, both to the mind and body of the person and to the mind and body of the community.

For this reason, community justice recognises that it's likely that the offender is often a victim, not of the crime committed, but of circumstances which contributed to offending behaviour such as complex untreated mental health disorders, substance addiction, familial neglect, and childhood traumas. 

So too, community justice recognises that a place can be understood as the victim of crime and social neglect. 

A punitive justice response can create victims. Consider the effects on family life when fathers or brothers are in and out of jail. Who else suffers from repeated incarceration?

Community justice asks problem-solving questions. What social, economic and environmental conditions catalysed the crime? What support measures are in place to rehabilitate, repair and reform people and the places they call home? Can we learn from those most affected by crime about what works and what doesn't?

In asking questions, community justice shows us how to treat the underlying conditions that lead to, or stem from, crime and social disadvantage.

Reconceptualise authority, share accountability

Broadly speaking, public safety is protected and maintained by the four pillars of justice: law enforcement, courts, corrections and government. These institutions are typically top-down, and use standardised procedures. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but for marginalised communities one-size-fits-all justice doesn't work, which is why community justice challenges us to reconceptualise the role of authority to achieve our end goal of improving the quality of community life.

Reconceptualising authority gives a local police officer the freedom and resources to set up community leaders engagement panel, run a basketball league to keep teenagers occupied after school, or to give people ways to work off minor offending behaviour in the community instead of having to slog through the courts.

Reconceptualising authority gives a magistrate or judge the capacity to find out what's happening in her local community services sector and to be part of a broader conversation to fill services gaps. Or to identify how her court can do more to support an offender's road to recovery.

Reconceptualising authority leads to truly innovative responses such as the exemplary Red Hook Community Center which gives teenagers responsibility for running Youth Court (External link) for young people aged 10 to 18.

Adding value

Community justice demands the justice system adds value to the community. That is, in action justice doesn't maintain the public safety status quo, it participates in activities that improve the quality of community life.

This is a point worth reflecting on. Why should justice stretch itself to give teenagers safe and healthy ways to fill their time, or support single mums who're isolated and financially burdened, or fix a park, or advocate for increased social services? Why indeed.

There are huge challenges for justice to seek to improve the quality of community, to be the value add. Communities comprise people with differing worldviews, strengths and voices, so balancing the needs of many is no easy feat. In addition, how far should a court engage with community life if it's also there to impartially judge behaviour? All good questions.

But if we consider that justice is an integral part of our community, we see how by doing things with citizens, instead of at or for them adds value to one postcode has positive ripple effects across many more.

Recap

  • 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.

History

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 justice centres wholly predicated on its concepts, and its increasingly influencing 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