For those arrested in the Rockaways, going through the justice system has always involved a long haul. The trip from Far Rockaway to the Queens criminal courthouse in Kew Gardens could take almost an hour and a half by bus and train even before the extra logistical hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But this summer, young people arrested for misdemeanors on the peninsula will have an option much closer to home. A community court is scheduled to open through a partnership with the Queens District Attorney, two local police precincts, neighborhood leaders, and Queens Defenders.
Lori Zeno, founder and executive director of Queens Defenders, said the goal is to “divert people from having to go to criminal court and instead keep them out of the system.”
Out of approximately 6,000 arrests each year in the two local police precincts in the Rockaways, she said 900 involve young adults under 24 years of age. The 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway has the higher crime rate of the two, and is predominantly black and Latino.
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Normally, those arrested on low-level misdemeanors—like possessing small amounts of a drug, trespassing or petty larceny—would get a desk appearance ticket requiring them to go to court in Kew Gardens within 20 days. If they miss that date—which can easily happen given the commute—they wind up with a warrant and can spend a night in jail.
Under the community justice center model, police and the Queens District Attorney will refer eligible misdemeanors to the new center at a storefront on Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway. Defendants must agree to accept responsibility for their offense in exchange for having their record cleared upon completing a “consequence,” or service to the community.
“The needs of the victim, offenders and the community will be addressed,” said Zeno, adding that the goal is “accountability with dignity” so an offender can play a productive role in the community after getting job training and networking opportunities.
Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz, who took office in January, said she believes this kind of alternative is important for young people given research showing their brains don’t fully develop until they’re 25 years old. “People deserve second chances,” she said. “They can’t do that if a record follows them for the rest of their life.”
Zeno credited Katz with making the community center a reality after years of discussion. She said Katz’s predecessor, Richard Brown, "was never interested.”
There are other community courts, notably in Red Hook and Midtown Manhattan that offer alternative sentencing models that have reduced recidivism. But they have professional judges from the state’s court system. The new model in Far Rockaway will rely entirely on local volunteers.
Zeno said her defenders and the DA’s office will train the volunteers to play the roles of judge and jurors on each case. Two volunteers on each case will also take on the duties of the prosecutor and defense. Queens Defenders will pay the monthly $4,000 rent on the storefront.
Les Mullings, senior pastor at Community Church of the Nazarene in Far Rockaway, said he thinks the center will play an important role in diverting young people of color out of the “pipeline to prison.”
“Far Rockaway is a small place so everybody knows everybody,” he explained. “I believe whatever sentence or verdict that is passed by the jury of the peers, then it will be more accepting or impacting.”
He said small crimes like petty larceny can escalate into bigger ones without an intervention, and even a minor conviction makes it harder to get a job or housing.
Assemblymember Stacey Amato, who represents Far Rockaway, also said victims will see real accountability when people pay back the community for a crime. “I know we are going to have that because it’s about forging relationships,” she said.
Zeno said those involved in creating the justice center don’t want traditional community service sentences like picking up trash, which she said can shame an individual. Instead, local businesses will offer mentorships with workforce training. If someone is interested in cars, for example, Zeno said they might work for a few days with an auto mechanic.
It might sound like a heavy lift to get a merchant to let someone accused of shoplifting, for example, to work in their store for a few days. But Renee McWilliams, director of education, employment and career development services at the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, said some local retail owners and barbershops have already worked with young people involved in the criminal justice system.
“Once it’s fleshed out and we talk about monitoring and job coaching and the worksite itself, I’m certain that will not be an issue,” she said, when asked if she’s encountered any reluctance.
The Rockaway model is also unusual because it doesn’t involve professional court officers and judges. A similar model exists in Los Angeles, where neighborhood justice centers take first-time offenders accused of low-level misdemeanors. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said panels of three trained volunteers plus a mediator meet with the “participant” to right the wrong they’ve acknowledged making to the victim and the community. For example, he said someone who sold alcohol to a minor might give a talk on the dangers of alcohol abuse to high school students.
Feuer acknowledged some prosecutors in the Queens District Attorney's office may be skeptical, after working under Katz’s predecessor, who was known for being more focused on law and order than restorative justice. Feuer said some in his office were also dubious, but that they’ve come around after seeing the results. The recidivism rate among those who complete the program is just about five percent, he said, making neighborhoods safer.
“It works and it diverts resources from an overburdened criminal justice system,” he said. He also credits the volunteers for being extremely engaged and empathetic.
The Rockaway justice center is still just getting off the ground and, unlike the LA program, it doesn’t have a federal grant from the U.S. Justice Department. Zeno said she hopes to hold virtual hearings very soon—like other courts in the city operating under pandemic conditions—until it’s allowed to open its doors to the public. She expects that to happen over the summer.
Elijah Henry, 19, a senior at the Frederick Douglass Academy VI in Far Rockaway, said he’s optimistic the program will make a difference. Henry’s school has a youth court run in partnership with Queens Defenders, for students who break the rules. He said some have had to write apology letters to teachers or lose lunch periods after being sentenced by their peers.
“Even though the consequences for the actions weren’t so outrageous,” he explained, “it still got into their mind, ‘oh this is real, what I did was wrong.’ They paid the price for what they did.”