'Commission Flats' by Kerry O'Keefe

Introducing community justice

Community Justice is the umbrella term for activities that combine social justice, criminal justice, and community development, which police, courts, and citizens use to:

  • rehabilitate people who offend through positive and lasting justice interventions
  • repair the harms caused by crime, no matter who is harmed
  • prevent crime from happening in the first place.

Community justice is rooted in the actions that citizens, community organisations, and the criminal justice system can take to control of finding solutions to crime and social disorder. This is a very different approach to our usual model, which relies on the police, courts, and justice system being responsible for public safety, law and order. 

Community justice is thus a partnership between the formal criminal justice system and the broader community. 

Using any number of practical, sometimes creative, but always collaborative practices, people address the root causes of crime and social disorder to create safer, healthier, and resilient neighbourhoods. 

Where it works

Activities that align criminal justice with social justice and community development are specifically needed in places where:

  • Crime rates are high
  • The conditions that lead to crime are prevalent 
  • Significant proportion of residents are on the downward spiral of repeat offending
  • Justice interventions are intense―intensive policing, courts are busy, people are in and out of jail.

In community justice parlance these are called high impact locations because it's in such places that community justice activities are most needed and have the highest impact.

A high impact location may be a town, a city municipality, or a disadvantaged neighbourhood in an otherwise thriving community.


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.

Core elements 

Let's look at why community justice works.

Place-based justice

The focus on community-oriented justice is concerned with criminogenic issues that happen at a local level, which are significant enough to adversely affect the community at large. 

It views neighbourhoods are not defined geographically, but as places affected by large economic, social, and political influences and systems beyond their control.

We are all influenced by where we are born and live, no two neighbourhoods are alike, and high impact locations are no exception.  

Disadvantage and crime are shaped by the socioeconomic and sociocultural characteristics of each place. 

Neighbourhoods bereft of well-resourced schools, where public spaces are in decay, where job prospects are poor, where services are scant, where there are, for example, more gambling venues than cinemas, where the 'informal social control networks' (aka, families, neighbours, community groups) are frayed, are far more likely to be, or have within their borders, high impact locations.

To heal damaged communities, community justice activities fit the specific characteristic in what its practitioners call 'place based justice'.

For instance, the NJC would use on set of solutions to resolve wide-spread public drunkenness in our neighbourhood, and another set if working on the other side of town with different socioeconomic characteristics.

When we look at the work of our court and the work of our community engagement teams we see we take places, not just cases approach for resolving complex, broad-scale issues.

Problems are solved

Community justice focuses on short-term and long-term problem-solving.

It is proactive, and based on identified issues. This is a shift from traditional justice responses which deal with the aftermath of crime, addressing incidents as they occur without attending to the underlying causes.

Problem-solving approaches rely on understanding the whole picture:  the underlying conditions that lead to, exacerbate or stem from, crime and social issues. And it looks for solutions that are of mutual interest to all parties, including the community interests.

This approach makes it a highly collaborative approach to resolving complex issues, whether the place or the case.

Prosecution and punishment may be involved, but depending on the issue, alternative resolutions can be used which redress the harm, rehabilitate, repair, and prevent harm from happening again

To illustrate:

A man who has stolen thousands of dollars from his employer comes before a community court. The court will find an appropriate sentence that also takes into account the man's gambling addiction that grew out of a traumatic marriage breakdown.

This leads to a solutions-focused sentence that involves a treatment pathway comprising an addiction recovery program, financial redress to his employer, a ban from entering gambling venues, and counselling. 

On the street a police officer resolves the problem of shoplifting teenagers by working with the counsel to repair a dilapidated skate park, and networks traders to the school so they can rapidly report truants. The young boys avoid court and help repair the skate park.

Defining victim

Problem-solving justice requires us to rethink our concepts of ‘right and wrong’ ‘wrongdoer and victim’.  

Communities are victims of crime and harm, whether its families divided when parents are in and out of the justice system, or through structural neglect.

The school truants mentioned above may be guilty of shop theft, but they may be the victims of family dysfunction, neglected neighbourhoods that give bored teenagers too much idle time, or victims of their own youthful vulnerabilities.

Places, not just cases is very holistic approach to improving public safety.

Citizen participation

Community justice expressly requires citizen participation to work. And specifically, the people most affected by crime and inequity. 

Citizens participate in a range of ways, from observers and commentators, to agents of change.

At the case level, people who come before community justice courts are given every opportunity to participate in their matter.

At the place level, citizens in high impact locations can:

  • Participate in community meetings with police and court staff 
  • Work with a court to design justice services
  • Help offenders to reintegrate back into the community.
  • Sit on justice advisory boards
  • Participate in crime prevention projects 

Citizen participation is founded on two important insights about public safety:

  • Informal social controls―family, friends, local community groups, churches and so forth―are more important than formal social controls―police, schools, government agencies, courts
  • It's better for democracy and equality when informal social controls are the drivers of public safety.

The goal of community justice is for communities to have self-determination and self-regulation to more fully manage their civic needs, and the resilience to withstand the impact of criminal activity when it happens. 

Decentralise authority, share accountability

Prevailing justice systems are hierarchical, highly bureaucratised, and operate under standardised procedures. Indeed, the NJC works in such a system. Community justice breaks this mould to bring the right people together to solve problems.

In some community justice courts in the USA, for example, staff report to citizen boards as well as to their operational supervisors.

At the NJC, police prosecutions, defence lawyers and welfare services are 'matrixed' under the same roof to find mutually agreeable solutions to get client out of the downward spiral of reoffending, to share ideas, and coordinate work more efficiently. 

Decentralising authority gives life to creative public safety solutions.

The many excellent police-run youth programs, for instance, doing great work in Australia and elsewhere, exemplify what can be achieved when experts working closest to 'the problem' are given scope to work with 'the problem'.

Improve community life 

The prevailing criminal justice system protects public safety by removing people who break the law from community life, and to varying degrees, by attending to the harm caused to victims. This is rudely simplistic, but accurate.

Community justice activities work to change the circumstances of offenders and victims, and to strengthen community self-regulation.

Here, justice is not defined as, again bluntly, people going to court; justice is a collective experience in everyday life.

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

Communities are composed of diverse individuals, and layers of competing interests. So how does justice reflect diversity in ways that are equitable and democratic? It's not easy.

As Karp warns, it's tempting to, for instance, adopt zero-tolerance approaches to crime that treats fellow citizens as a kind of enemy. And aiming for a high quality of life is a worthwhile pursuit but it is 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.

Doing justice locally

People living in high impact locations cannot improve their quality of community life alone.  If they could, they would.

And so to recap, are the core elements to take away and ponder:

  • Place matters justice activities tailor to the needs of populations 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.

    This is how positive, meaningful change takes root and flourishes.


    Recommended reading

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