PBS Film Looks at Justice Alternatives in Brooklyn

A PBS documentary explores alternatives to jail time for low-level criminal offenders in Brooklyn. Producer Meema Spadola and Judge Alex Calebrese, who presides over the Red Hook Community Justice Center, discuss the film with Farai Chideya.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

"Red Hook Justice" is a documentary that looks at alternative community justice as seen in a special court in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The court hands out sentences which include job training and drug counseling. If convicts fail to complete these programs, then they will go to prison. The documentary will be broadcast on most PBS stations tonight. Meema Spadola produced and directed "Red Hook Justice." She joined Judge Alex Calabrese, presiding jurist at the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Judge Calabrese described to NPR's Farai Chideya why Red Hook offers a better solution to what he called the process of recycling offenders through the system.

Judge ALEX CALABRESE (Red Hook Community Justice Center): We look behind the charges to see what the problem was that brought the defendant to the back door and try to solve that problem by using many different services that we have on site, and when successful, which it is most of the time, it's better for the community because you've solved that person's problem. It's better for the defendant and it's better for the court system because you're not going to see them again.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Now, Meema, let me turn to you. You are the filmmaker. What made you choose this project? You worked on it for two or three years, is that correct?

Ms. MEEMA SPADOLA (Filmmaker): It was four years in the making and it was really a documentary-maker's dream because here's an ambitious project that we got to start filming from the very beginning. When the court opened, you know, we didn't know. Was it going to work? Was it not going to work? How was the community going to respond? We were able to look at the kinds of crimes that normally the media don't pay attention to. These are low-level crimes, misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Those are the kinds of crimes that fill our nation's courts but that we don't pay attention to, but it's exactly these kinds of low-level crimes that kind of drag so many people, you know, into the system and can really, you know, be a part of holding them back from ever succeeding. So this is a project that says, `OK, so you've made a mistake. You've committed a crime. This is a chance for you, at this moment of crisis, to turn your life around.'

CHIDEYA: Give us some concrete examples of the kinds of people that you followed and any issues or problems that came up as you followed their stories.

Ms. SPADOLA: This is not an easy way out at the Justice Center. It might sound sort of like a touchy-feely approach, but, in fact, the court monitors their progress very closely. So we followed Anthony, who was 17 years old when he was first arrested for marijuana possession. This is a kid whose parents were both passed away. He was the middle of 11 siblings. You know, the deck was really stacked against him. People at the Justice Center like, you know, Judge Calabrese, and even folks like Leroy Davis, who's a court officer and grew up in Red Hook, these are people who really started to, you know, care about this kid and demand that he follow through and pay attention to him. So I think by the end of the documentary what you see is even though he stumbles a lot, that the court, you know, keeps pushing him ahead and that he manages to come through at the end without a criminal record and, you know, still comes back to the court to show off a pay stub to the judge and stays in touch with people at the court.

(Soundbite from "Red Hook Justice")

Unidentified Man: Just make sure you be safe, all right? You be careful out there, OK? Here you go, babe, all right?

CHIDEYA: I'm going to go back to you, Judge Calabrese. What do you think is wrong with the traditional court system?

Judge CALABRESE: The traditional courts, sometimes they pay attention, of course, to the murders, the robberies, rapes, and that's what you want your court to do. But can they handle the possession of a one glassine of heroin, which unfortunately those cases are--there are so many of those cases that they really plague and work on the quality of life of a community.

CHIDEYA: Meema, final question for you. What kind of impact do you want this to have?

Ms. SPADOLA: People all over the country can look at "Red Hook Justice" and watch what's happening there and think about how they might be able to approach sort of the whole crime syndrome that's happening in their communities because the Justice Center recognizes that crime doesn't happen independently. It's really part of a larger set of problems.

CHIDEYA: Meema Spadola is the producer/director/writer of the documentary "Red Hook Justice." It features Judge Alex Calabrese, the presiding justice at the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Thank you both for joining me.

Ms. SPADOLA: Thank you so much.

Judge CALABRESE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

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