Pinched between the Gowanus Expressway and New York Harbor, Red Hook is both blessed and plagued by its isolation. The neighborhood has a small-town feel, and the waterfront views are stunning. But Red Hook's 11,000 residents are cut off from the rest of Brooklyn, and they are mostly poor. Poverty and remoteness go hand in hand here. Their toll is apparent in garbage-strewn lots, car pounds and junkyards that dot the neighborhood.

Red Hook's isolation has also made it the guinea pig for an experiment in criminal justice. When it opens in November, the Red Hook Community Justice Center will be using the enclave as a laboratory to test some of the newest ideas in the field. Its developer, the Center for Court Innovation, wants to see if a high-crime community can turn itself around--not by exporting its criminals to courts downtown and jails upstate, but by integrating criminal justice into the fabric of day-to-day life. The idea is to transform a neighborhood where crime is pervasive into a community where the power of the court is just as far-reaching.

"Isolation is the main issue Red Hook has to confront, but it's a plus for us because we have the opportunity to evaluate impact," explains Greg Berman, deputy director of CCI. "Inevitably we will touch the lives of almost everybody who lives and works in Red Hook."

Law and order are hard to avoid here. In 1992, a beloved neighborhood principal was killed accidentally in a shootout, horrifying the community. Three years ago, during an early-morning drug sweep of the sprawling Red Hook Houses, where three-fourths of the neighborhood lives, residents woke to see many of their neighbors in handcuffs.

By combining a court and social service center into one building--a formerly abandoned parochial school--the justice center on Visitation Place is supposed to transform the endless cycles of crime and punishment into a force for change. Focusing on quality-of-life crimes, the court will offer alternative sentencing that can benefit the neighborhood--a graffiti artist might be required to paint over tags, or a turnstile-jumper to clean up a trash-strewn lot. Eventually, the justice center will also handle cases normally heard in Housing Court and Family Court, which, like criminal courts, touch the lives of many Red Hook residents.

But this court won't only contain courtrooms. It's also a port of entry to a wealth of public services, from group and individual counseling, health screenings, job training and child care to rooms for community meetings. And these will be available not just to the court's defendants but to every resident of Red Hook. With holding cells that use reinforced glass instead of bars, clean white walls and a staff of counselors on hand, this is the first court in the country selling itself as an agent of community transformation.

"It creates an opportunity for residents to feel a closer connection to the criminal justice system," says Michael Frett, the Brooklyn district attorney's liaison to the court project. "Whether we like it or not, we have to consider that crime affects communities."

The justice center is built on that provocative assessment: that Red Hook simply cannot afford to ignore the fact that victimization, punishment and legal tangles shape life here. "Many residents know someone, either a friend or a relative, who has been the perpetrator of a crime," notes Berman.

But some residents and criminal justice experts say they're wary of the presumptions behind the court. "There's an inherent danger of the justice system being the biggest and prettiest and most available resource in a community," worries Elizabeth Gaines, executive director of the Osborne Association, whose justice-reform think tank has been a consultant on the Red Hook court. "Children are left with the impression that the justice system is necessarily a part of their lives."

CCI is betting that the potential payoff of a safer, healthier neighborhood is worth it. With research staff watching closely, the Red Hook experiment will show whether it is possible to convert the criminal justice system from a force that has fractured a community into one that helps piece it back together. "All our projects are designed as experiments," says Berman. "What we're trying to test here is how a community and a court can work together."

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Though it will never see a murder case or a drug bust, the Community Justice Center started with a bullet. When elementary school principal Patrick Daly was caught in the crossfire of a drug-related fight, it was the last straw.

Red Hook residents were tired of living in a dangerous place. "You could not walk down the street," says one resident of the Red Hook Houses as he sits with a friend on a bench in Coffey Park, down the street from the court. The friend adds that it wasn't just the streets that were dangerous--"The junkies would jump you in the hallway."

While Red Hook lived under siege, the Midtown Community Court was making waves in the criminal justice world by sentencing low-level offenders to clean the streets of Times Square. Midtown was the debut court experiment for former Victim Services lawyer John Feinblatt and his crew of reformers, who soon branched out into other projects as the Center for Court Innovation. CCI has since risen to national prominence with test projects that promote community-based justice as an alternative to traditional courts.

Born out of frustration with the dead end offered by criminal courts--where the only options for sentencing are hard time or no time--community justice aims to create a forum for helping victims, perpetrators and their communities. Defendants fulfill sentences that contribute to neighborhood life; where appropriate, sentencing also gives restitution to victims and addresses personal problems connected with criminal behavior. Picking up trash, obliterating grafitti and enrolling in drug rehab are all standard items on the sentencing menu.

Red Hook will try criminal cases in much the same manner that Midtown does. Defendants who plead guilty and accept the sentence the DA offers will become justice center clients; those who don't are rerouted to criminal court. Sentences for petty crimes like vandalism, disorderly conduct and low-level assault will range from community service and social service programs to fines and jail time.

An offender sentenced to community service will also meet with a social service intake worker, who'll explain what the center offers. But the process isn't as touchy-feely as it might sound; the justice center is still a court, with the power to impose sentences and punish offenders. "It shouldn't have to come down to us to make people change their behavior," says Alex Calabrese, who'll be the head judge at Red Hook. "[But] we have more persuasive means we can use to make people complete programs."