Currently, our judicial process tends to be centralized—an intentional expression of its traditional prominence as a central pillar of the city. The result is that those participating either voluntarily or involuntarily in the process must come to justice rather than the judicial process being woven into the fabric of their communities.
Restorative justice occurs in many places and contexts but one common denominator is its requirement of community engagement. The supporting spaces must be located where people live as it is a community-driven process.Therefore one way in which we can envision a restorative justice infrastructure is to create satellite centers near public transport in very accessible and identifiable places in each community.
Interestingly enough this strategy is already being implemented in our punitive model with the creation of Community Justice Centers. The Community Justice Center model started in New York City as collaboration between The New York Court System and the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit nonpartisan research and development foundation. Together they have created a new kind of community based court that combines traditional trial and incarceration justice practices with a problem solving service component. The courts and social services in each of these centers are tailored to meet the needs of their specific communities and a more intimate relationship is formed between the people coming through the courts, the larger community and the judges themselves. The result is that neighborhoods where CJC’s reside are transforming including Midtown, Red Hook and Harlem as crime decreases and the general wellbeing of the community increases. This model has been so successful that it has spread across the United States and to cities in England and Australia.
As Restorative Justice begins to grow it is likely that it may be linked or embedded within this decentralized adjudication model as it meets some of the basic requirements for these programs to function successfully. In some CJC’s restorative practices are already being implemented. However in chatting about this idea with restorative justice practitioners, lawyers and judges there are mixed feelings about doing so. Many practitioners do not believe restorative practices should be located within our existing courthouses or community justice centers. With its youth courts and holding cells it is still the punitive model albeit a more effective one. The values of these two models are so radically different that I also believe an idealized restorative justice infrastructure would be separate. However it may be that if we want to embed this practice more deeply into our culture, combining it with more innovative punitive models may be one direction to take. Either way I believe there are many lessons to be learned from Community Justice Centers. The high level of community involvement, the tailoring of services to meet the needs of the community and sensitive site selection provide us with a successful model for integrating a new system into an existing community.
Deanna VanBuren is the principal and founder of FOURM design studio in Oakland California.
Her practice specializes in designing for alternatives to incarceration. She is currently on the national board of Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility.