Taking Down the Walls: Measures to Integrate the Objectives of the Justice System with the Community's

By Mark Carey, Director, Dakota County Community Corrections, originally published in Community Corrections Report, 1997, reprinted with permission)

The criminal and juvenile justice system has been closely scrutinized in recent times by academic pundits, elected officials, and the public. Generally, the evaluation has not been favorable, whether based on factual data or perception. The justice system has been ineffective at stemming the conditions that breed crime. Sentencing serves a useful purpose, but large-scale crime reduction is not one of them. The public is dissatisfied with the system's ability to create the kind of societal change, which would reduce their fear of crime. In addition, people tend to globalize their fears and anxieties, often applying sweeping judgments about an entire set of players, in this case toward both offenders and justice system personnel. The justice system will face a "we-they" response from the public until it addresses the human condition of fear due to the lack of familiarity with the justice process and the system's inability to resolve inter-personal conflict.

This article illustrates some of the ways the current Justice system inadvertently isolates the public from the halls which seek to dispense Justice, describes its consequences, and identifies some ways in which jurisdictions have begun to bring the work of justice into its communities.

Justice System Features that Isolate and Insulate

You know the analogies: the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Walls of Jericho, etc. All of these historical events contain a common theme: walls separate people from each other. Regardless of any positive benefits they are perceived to produce (such as security), walls create a set of unintended consequences. America's justice system is no different in this regard. Its walls may be impervious to the casual observer, but the resulting separation is no less imposing than a physical fence. If the justice system is serious about serving the public, then a close examination of the ways it keeps the community away is worth exploring.

In the beginning of this century, the courts were closely bound to the community. Probation officers were seen as part of the community from which they served. Police officers were well known to the residents whose streets they walked and patrolled. Societal changes prompted the modern justice service delivery process. For example, the courts centralized judicial functions due to factors such as the shift from the dominance of the rural community, specialization, court unification, and severing the link between the courts and local politics (Rottman, 1996).

It is useful to examine how the modem day Justice system's process keeps the public away, which perpetuates a fear and anxiety-based cycle. The following are some prevalent features in today's US justice system which tends to create an insulation effect:

  1. Data Privacy and Convenient Access to Information: States have data privacy laws that prohibit the release of private data on offenders. It is hard to argue the sensibility of having such laws. However, data privacy laws can be applied in extreme measures. For example, victims may not be able to get information on offenders which would help protect themselves. The public cannot get easy access to information that tells them where offenders convicted of serious offenses are living. Information cannot be shared with schools on juvenile offenders when certain information can help the school protect the other students and teachers.
  2. Sterilization of Information: Public agencies have access to private, public, and summary data, which is critically important to the development of public policy. How and whether this information is shared with the public is often a source of debate. When summary information is eventually made public, it is often "massaged" to such a degree that it appears sterilized to the casual reader or observer. It usually takes persistent inquiries and thorough information analysis to determine what major policy implications might be drawn from the data.
  3. Removal of Emotion from Justice Process: The justice process seeks to establish a calming, orderly environment. When individuals express raw emotions, attempts are made to control and remove these expressions from the proceedings. Yet, it is precisely these emotions that need an avenue for expression. Crime is a form of interpersonal conflict. This conflict is emotionally charged and solutions often require the expression and remedy which makes justice system personnel uncomfortable. The process promotes a type of blanched participation. Often, one of the system goals (e.g., speedy case processing) takes precedence over the restoration of the victim, offender, and the community. The system machinery loses sight of a core objective, determining responsible parties and seeking a dispositional process and outcome that repairs the harm to the degree possible. In many cases, efficiency becomes an antithesis to effectiveness.
  4. Intimidating and Foreign Structures: Courthouses are built with imposing and forbidding structural designs and materials. They take on a form of majestic air, complete with marble tile and mahogany paneling. Judges sit higher than others, and wear robes. Participants stand as the judge is introduced. The judge maintains order through the surroundings, bulletproof glass, metal detectors, use of the gavel, the presence of a bailiff, and the power inherent in the position. The language and legal process is foreign to most participants, especially victims who may have never entered a courtroom before this somber occasion. This is not a setting where a participant is made to feel welcome and where the message is given that one's input is sought and valued.
  5. Professionalization: The Justice system is operated by those with a required education and experience background. The procedures are carefully scripted, as based on law, Court Rules, policies, or historical practice. Unless you're a member of the "system club" you cannot know what the unwritten rules are as to conduct and appropriate protocol. One gets the sense that one should "not speak unless spoken to."
  6. Public Service Convenience: In many ways, American society is handcuffed to a 911 mentality. When problems exist among members of a community, they call government officials whether that be police, the local housing inspector, the neighborhood association officer, or the animal control officer. Conflict is seldom resolved directly by the affected parties, but is referred to professional experts. We have become a society of specialization that has led to a reliance on experts to handle our conflicts. We have willingly given over our conflicts and our autonomy to these experts, only to lose our ability to influence and shape the outcome of that conflict. It is precisely our anxiety around crime which propels us to seek solutions from professionals, which ultimately disempowers us and diminishes our sense of community responsibility.

These factors, in combination, create a fortress-like effect. It takes on a self-fulfilling role. For example, as justice system personnel gain more education and expertise in their field, there is a natural tendency to use this specialized language and procedures like a foreign language. A type of dress and courtroom code of conduct is established. Friendships and social cliques develop. Over time, a type of closed system culture develops that shuns public scrutiny or influence. In fact, public input tends to mess up an otherwise fairly tidy set of procedures for those who work closely within the system.

Nils Christie (1977) describes interpersonal conflict as personal property. Conflict is something that is "owned" by those involved, and he argues that more conflict is needed in industrialized society, not less. He describes justice representatives as "professional thieves" in that they are trained at stealing conflict which has a paralyzing effect by disempowering victims and communities.

Consequences of the Isolation

The community's response to crime should not be surprising. Anger and fear leads to a tendency to isolate ourselves in order to keep potentially harmful events away from us (Pranis, 1996). Isolation leads to a breakdown of social bonding. We have retreated to the safety of our backyards. Front porches have been abandoned and, with that, our collective responsibility for the safety and welfare of our neighbors. We look out for ourselves. It is through social bonding activities between neighbors (such as joint garage sales, block parties, bridge clubs, informal gatherings, etc.) which promote interpersonal relationships and trust. Isolation, however, breeds unfamiliarity, which leads to the loss of trust and further isolation. This cycle creates fertile ground for crime to grow, thus accelerating a spiraling effect (figure 1). In addition, isolation creates an environment of anonymity whereby the offender is unknown to the community and not held accountable on an on-going basis. By being anonymous, the offender is freed from many informal societal constraints which can embolden the offender to partake in anti-social activities.

CYCLE OF CRIME Cycle of Crime Cycle of Crime Cycle of Crime
Figure I

This emotional response to events which create anxiety unfolds similarly by personnel in the justice system. When justice system personnel are criticized for their actions, there is a natural inclination to defend those decisions. Over time, there is a tendency to retreat in isolation from those who might seek blame when crime, especially repeat crime, occurs in local communities. One way to insulate itself, is for the system to limit easy access to information, or to control the nature of that information when it is released. Not surprisingly, the public ultimately will either stop listening, trusting, or understanding. This creates a spiraling cause and effect, which ultimately thickens the wall of insulation (figure 2). Like a piece of sand which irritates an oyster, provoking a chemical reaction and layers of substance that build up to form a pearl, both the public and the justice system simultaneously finds itself irritated and defensive, only to build up a wall of separation. In this case, however, what is left is not a pearl, but a wall of insulation.

THICKENING OF THE WALL PROCESS Thickening of the Wall Process Diagram
Figure 2

One way to understand the effects of system isolation is to examine how a justice system might answer these questions:

1. Is the justice process easy for a citizen to understand upon observation, or is it so filled with legal and expert jargon to make it largely incomprehensible?

2. Does the public have real access to the system (i.e., comfortable, respectful, inviting), or are there roadblocks to participation?

3. Do community members have an opportunity to truly influence the outcome, or is it almost entirely determined by the system personnel?

4. Is the system respectful of cultural, gender, socio-economical differences by the way it operates, or is it inflexible?

Promising Conceptual Frameworks Which Reduce System and Community Insulation

Fortunately, much is changing. System professionals and citizen members alike have recognized the need to join efforts to regain control over their neighborhoods. Crime can serve as a type of catalyst or "social fuel" which, if channeled, can provide the motivation and energy to empower a community to take fuller and more direct responsibility for crime and deteriorating social conditions (Christie, 1977).

A number of practical conceptual models have been popularized lately which provide compelling frameworks to help organize and articulate community based practices in responding to social problems, including crime. Some of these include communitarianism, community policing, devolution, Communities That Care, civic responsibility, community justice, and restorative justice. Programs operating out of a restorative or community justice model are producing tangible results which put the community on center stage.

Restorative Justice is a philosophical framework which puts the repair of crime as the predominant goal of intervention. Crime is viewed as a violation of one person by another as opposed to a violation against the state. The focus is on problem solving for the future rather than solely establishing blame for past behavior. Victims are given opportunities for input and for closure by gaining a better understanding of what happened, being able to move on with lives, impressing upon offenders the real human impact of their behavior, and promoting restitution payment plans. It puts victims and offenders in active and interpersonal problem solving roles. The community plays an important role in restorative justice as well. Some specific roles and responsibilities of the community are:

1. Supporting crime victims;

2. Establishing standards of conduct and condemning crime;

3. Providing opportunities for the offender to make amends (i.e., to "earn their redemption" and gain competencies which the community values); and

4. Establishing and maintaining community harmony.

Government can play a critical role in helping communities regain their sense of control and identity. This role is not to take over the community's organizing activities but to serve as a catalyst and facilitator by providing technical assistance, information, and seed funds when needed. Community organizing efforts have a better chance to break the cycle of crime by tapping into this "social fuel" and promoting activities that disrupt social conditions that breed crime. It is precisely the process of organizing and delivering these activities that bring about familiarity, bonding, and trust which ultimately builds long-lasting community capital (see figure 3). The activities cannot simply be superimposed on existing service delivery corrections structures. Rather, neighborhoods and communities need to take on the responsibility for managing crime conditions.

RESTORATIVE COMMUNITY RESPONSE Restorative Community Response Diagram
Figure 3

Justice system interventions, then, need to be more broadly applied. Rather than viewing crime simply as an illegal act against the state, it must see it as an interpersonal conflict against a victim and an entire community. Crime affects the large public body, as evidenced by generalized feelings of fear and anxiety, and by altered behavior (such as not leaving the home at might, purchasing security systems, avoiding normal social activities which put us at risk, etc.). It is helpful to see the affect of crime in its expansive form, as having a type of "whirlwind affect." A twister wreaks havoc on a wide-scale basis. The area where the twister touches the ground creates the most direct damage. However, the winds associated with the storm have a far-reaching impact, well beyond the point of ground contact. And, even in those areas where the twister does not cause damage, fear and anxiety are prevalent. The Justice system has traditionally focused solely on the point of contact: that of the offender, and to a lesser degree, to the victim (figure 4). Yet, the community is both a key victim and a resource for resolution.


The Whirlwind of Crime Effect Diagram

Community-based and restorative-minded practices serve to remove the insulation between the system and the public in a meaningful way. They directly involve the public. These practices seek to restore the harmony at the community level. They may even access the community's resources to bring about restorative changes. Most importantly, the process goal is not to bring the community to the justice system, but to bring the justice system to the community. The common features in the promotion of a community-based, restorative approach are that they 1) fully inform those affected by the crime, 2) provide full access to decision making (in a way that is comfortable, convenient, and respectful), 3) use processes that are raw and real, 4) are consensual in nature whenever possible, 5) unite instead of break apart, 6) use the justice system as a backstop, not the backbone, and 7) are empowering in nature.

Promising Practices

Some of the newest applications of Justice in the community are truly connecting the justice system and the public in unique ways. These practices are serving as bridges, gates, and pathways to integrate system and community objectives to such a point that they are being blended into one indistinguishable outcome: justice.

Circle Sentencing: Circles are composed of offenders and their supporters, victims and their supporters, interested members of the general community, and criminal/juvenile justice system representatives. They focus on peacemaking or healing. Circles are facilitated by community "keepers." The participants use a consensus building process. The needs of the victim and the community, as well as the needs and responsibilities of the offender are addressed through the circle process that results in the development of a plan. If the offender fails to fulfill his/her responsibility, the case is returned to the formal court process. Circles can also be used for family, civil, and other conflicts.

Crime Boards: Also known as reparative probation, Crime Boards are designed for offenders convicted of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. The program involves face-to-face meetings between the offender and volunteer Community Reparative Board members. These members are citizens who are trained to intervene on cases referred by the court process. The purpose is to work out an agreement on how the offender is to make reparation to the victim and the community. Offenders are sentenced to the program by a judge following adjudication of guilt. The Board may meet with the offender after the initial meetings in order to monitor progress on conditions.

Family Group Conferencing: Conferencing is a process of intervention whereby community members affected by the crime come together to meet with the victim and the offender. The meeting is facilitated by a trained volunteer or police officer. The purpose is to talk about how the crime has affected each others' lives, and decide as a group how the harm is to be repaired. Conferences may be held before or after the adjudication process, or as an alternative to the formal justice system.

Community Policing: Community policing involves the assignment of law enforcement officers to a specific geographic area and may include the opening of "mini-stations" in neighborhoods. The officers develop trust through routine communication with community leaders, citizens, and business owners. Officers take on a problem solving approach rather than waiting to respond to a call after a crime had already occurred. The officers may also organize block clubs, support local merchant associations, and conduct other crime prevention efforts.

Neighborhood Probation: Also known as beat probation, neighborhood probation is similar to community policing whereby probation officers are assigned to geographic areas instead of having dispersed caseloads. The view the community as their client and establish community partnerships. They will often join the area neighborhoods in working with offenders to prevent recidivism, deal with community "hot spots," gang intimidation, drug houses, and other quality of life concerns. Efforts are also made to collaborate with other service agencies such as social services, public health, churches, etc.

School Based Probation: Similar to neighborhood probation, school based probation involves placing juvenile probation officers in schools. They are assigned the same geographic area as the school's and provide problem solving assistance to school for those students on probation. The objective is to monitor probationers while seeking ways to increase the likelihood of school success through improvement of grades, reduction in truancy and expulsions, and increase in high school graduation.

Community Courts: Community courts respond to the need to be closer to community needs by decentralizing court facilities. Also known as court devolution, the courts permit access at many remote locations whereby citizens can file forms, pay fines, and participate in the court process more conveniently. It requires collaboration between the court and one or more community groups in order to forge a more broadly based connection between the court and community. It includes three components including: resolving disputes directly and with the help of those affected, treating parties of a dispute as individuals rather than abstract legal entities, and using community resources in the resolution of disputes.

Community Prosecution: Community prosecution helps communities resolve immediate, specific crime related problems identified by the residents. Prosecutors may be assigned to specific neighborhoods and assist communities by explaining legal constraints that prevent law enforcement from acting, and devising alternative tools citizens and police can use when conventional ones fail.

Community Defense: Community defense seeks to provide legal services for the purpose of solving problems that foster crime and injustice before crime occurs. It seeks to address structural problems that are in existence in many communities. Rather than just representing individuals accused of crime, community defense attorneys are based in the community, are accessible to the public, and represent clients in an effort to avoid problems. The highest priorities are given to cases before an arrest is made. Assistance is offered to families and community members who are experiencing difficulties that can be addressed, in part, with legal assistance.


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Date Created: December 4, 2007