'Commission Flats' by Kerry O'Keefe

An introduction to community justice

Community justice is public safety framework of the criminal justice system. Its goal is the improvement of community life—that is, to make communities better places to live, work, visit and raise families.

Community justice works towards this goal by focusing on crime, harm and other justice-related issues to:

  • Restore victims of crime back from the harm done to them (this includes community as victim)
  • Reintegrate offenders back into society as good and proper citizens.
  • Prevent crime from happening again, or in the first place.

While there's no off-the-shelf community justice model, five core elements set it apart from what the prevailing justice system in which it works. 

  • Place matters: Justice activities tailor to the needs of specific populations and places  
  • Problems are solved: Public safety problems are solved proactively (as well as reactively as happens through the courts)
  • Decentralise authority, share accountability:  Police, courts, and corrections and other ‘authorities’ give their workers the flexibility to work outside their standard organisational hierarchies so they can work at a grassroots level (where direct action is needed most)
  • Involve people: citizens are expressly involved in the justice process 
  • Improve community life: justice activities must improve the community quality of life for the community overall.

These elements provide the framework for a broad canvas of crime prevention and justice activities.

And finally, community justice brings together social justice with criminal justice, and is rooted in social welfare, community development, and restorative justice, and founded on fundamental human rights.


Place matters

Community justice focuses on ‘places not just cases’.  That is, it takes into account the many issues and conditions that to lead, exacerbate, or stem from crime and harmful behaviour, such as poor schooling, low health care, poor employment opportunities, neglected or non-existent leisure time opportunities and facilities, family dysfunction, poverty, wide-spread, chronic substance abuse, and other social malaise.

Put another way, community justice aims to improve the conditions that communities need to be safe, healthy, and prosperous by tackling chronic social disadvantage, which is why it is designed for places where:

  • Crime rates are high
  • Conditions for crime are prevalent
  • A significant proportion of residents are on the downward spiral of repeat offending
  • Justice interventions in communitiespolicing, courts, corrections is high.

Community justice defines these places as ‘high impact locations’ because it is in such places where community justice activities are most needed and have the highest impact. 

Community justice centres/courts work in the communities and neighbourhoods they service. That is, community justice centres/courts do not work from big headquarters; rather, they work in smaller centres in neighbouhood locations. In fact, community justice centres often use existing buildings that are in need of repair. In this way, the very act of moving into a 'high impact' location has the positive impact of improving community life. The NJC's building, for example, was in ruin for many decades. Opting to restore an existing building fits the principles of community restoration.

Problems are solved 

Within the community justice paradigm, crime is not a contest to be won, but a series of problems to be solved.  

A community justice courts, such as the NJC’s, require people to take account for their actions, but the court will prioritise rehabilitation, or use therapeutic interventions that assist the person to break the cycle of offending. 

The models of community court are also designed to solve problems. For example, the NJC is the first court in Australia to merge family, housing, civil and criminal matters before a single Magistrate. This multi-jurisdictional model enables the Magistrate to address not only the individual, and often complicated circumstances of a case, but to understand and address the broader social impacts.

Outside the court, problems are solved in ways often creative, and not necessarily directly related to law and order.

For example, police, courts, a local high school, local counsel, and shop owners join forces to give retailers a way to report school truants who are causing public nuisance, including shoplifting. But the counsel also refurbishes a local basket ball court, and the students are invited to decorate shop shutters so the street scape is attractive after hours. This art project brings retailer and kids together to improve public spaces, and get to know each other.

Problems may also require much longer, more complex solutions. For instance, the NJC in partnership with local services and schools is developing programs that steer 8-14-year-olds from harmful behaviour such as alcohol and drug experimentation,  sexual risk-taking, and school disengagement.  This is problem solving, but there are not quick fixes or one-size-fits-all answers.

Problem-solving also requires rethinking concepts of ‘right and wrong’ ‘wrongdoer and victim’.  That is, communities can be victims, as evidenced by the high proportion of offenders who are victims of, for example, mental health issues, dysfunctional upbringings, or structural social disadvantage. Indeed, the school truants mentioned above may be 'guilty' of shop theft, but they can also be the victims of family dysfunction. Or victims of their own youthful vulnerabilities.

Decentralise authority, share accountability


Mainstream justice systems are hierarchical, and highly bureaucratised. And indeed, the NJC works in such a system.  However, community justice applies non-traditional organisational alignments to solve problems.


In community justice courts in the US, for example, staff report to citizen boards.  At the NJC, police prosecutions, defence lawyers and welfare services work under the same roof, and collaborate for appropriate justice outcomes that also find solutions that break the cycle of offending.


Decentralising authority focuses on lateral information sharing, with information gathered, and interventions designed and monitored systematically.  


Decentralising authority can often lead to creative solutions. Police sports clubs for at-risk youth, or supporting a fresh produce markets on vacant land that is otherwise dragging a neighbourhood down  encapsulate the shared accountability required for improving community life.

Involve citizens

Community justice requires citizen participation, and again, this typically refers to citizens who live or work in high impact locations. 

Citizens participate to a range of depths, from observers and commentators to agents of change. Whatever the degree of involvement, citizen participation is required. Examples of involvement include:

  • Participating in community meetings
  • Active participation in designing new justice services
  • Helping offenders to reintegrate back into the community

Formal roles include:

  • Members of justice advisory boards
  • Participating in specific project teams (see Smith Street Working Group)

The shift toward citizen participation is grounded in two insights:  First, informal social controls (family, friends, local community groups, churches and so forth) are more important than formal social controls (police and courts) to maintain social order.

Second, citizen participation is grounded in the principles of democracy and equality. Placing the onus of public safety and social control purely on formal mechanisms in part contributes to fracturing these principles.


Improve community life 


Traditional criminal justice is concerned with finding the appropriate responses to individual cases of offending.


Community justice courts still sanction offending behaviour, but focus on breaking the cycle of offending. Other community justice activities focus on tackling wide-spread social disadvantage so citizens do not end up in court, and neighbourhoods improve.


Community justice argues that sanctioning offender behaviour is not the full extent of justice, nor can justice be said to prevail if the underlying conditions that lead to, or stem from, crime are not attended to. 


Improving the quality of community life also means supporting communities to have the ability to self-regulate, that is, to have the power and ability to handle their own civic needs.  


Justice, then, is not exclusively the experience of individuals around their particular criminal cases; it is also a collective experience in everyday life.  


Processes of community justice

Community justice calls for justice agents to respond quickly, flexibly and creatively to crime. This is why activities are guided by four processes that are best illustrated by the questions they ask:

  1. System accessibility:  Are programs/ services accessible? Do recipients need to travel far to avail of its services? Do justice workers have the time and flexibility required to deliver services? What level of personal and ethical care is required for program/service delivery?
  2. Community involvement: Are decisions made collectively? Are citizens empowered to act? Is anyone excluded?
  3. Reparative process: how do offenders take account for the harm they have caused, and how do they take responsibility for reforming?
  4. Reintergrative processes: how offenders are brought back into the community? How is public safety vouchsafed? How are offenders supervised? How are community’s expected standards of behaviour protected?

Principles of community justice

Community justice practitioners are guided by seven community justice principles.

Democratic principles

How to respond to crime.

  • Norm affirmation standards of behaviour must be restored if broken, and respected.
  • Restoration social and emotional harm done by an offence must be repaired.
  • Public safety offenders will not cause additional harm to the community.

Egalitarian principles

How to work in high impact locations.

  • Equality:  socio-economic inequalities must be addressed.
  • Inclusion: as many community members as possible must help improve community life.
  • Mutuality:  citizens coexist and cooperate for mutually beneficial ends (the needs of many, not simply the rights or demands of a few)
  • Stewardship: citizens are responsible for their community, not just their own interests
  • Social justice with criminal justice


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 enshrined in today’s framework.

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

Recommended reading

Clear, Todd R (External link) and Karp, David R (External link) (2000). Community justice: A conceptual framework Criminal Justice 2000