How Building A New Courtroom Transformed A Community

The neighborhood of Red Hook used to be one of the roughest, not just in all of Brooklyn, but in all of America. It was riddled with crime and drugs and supported one of the biggest public housing developments in all of NYC. The gunfire in certain areas was so bad, some parents started putting their kids to bed in the bathtub in the hopes of keeping them safe.

Then, in 1992, Red Hook reached a breaking point, making national headlines when an elementary school principal was shot during his search for a fourth-grade student who left school.

Something had to change in their approach to crime. So, some leaders in Red Hook reached out to Judge Alex Calabrese for help.

Eight years later, Red Hook opened their revolutionary community court and experienced nearly instant results. Just to name a few:

  • An immediate drop in arrest rate;
  • Not just fewer first-time arrests, but second-offense crimes also dropped to 20% lower than those who went through traditional court systems;
  • The number of defendants sent to jail dropped 35%, with community service making up 78% (other neighborhoods averaged 22%); and
  • The #1 word that defendants started using to describe the experience of the Red Hook community justice system was “respectful.”

How does this happen? How does a community infected with drugs, crime, and poverty experience such a drastic shift in their criminal justice system? And why does the way we discipline matter so much?

A New Way to Discipline

It’s incredibly difficult to break from traditional approaches to doing things. If you walk into almost any courtroom in the country, you can expect them to be similar. Traditionally, it’s an intimidating place, whether you are on trial or not!

The judge sits high on his bench with a gavel. The bailiff is intimidating and grumpy, focused on helping maintain order and power for the judge, and everyone nervously awaits the sentencing of the defendant. Guilty is bad. Not guilty is good.

Well, the Red Hook Community Justice Center decided to scrap that experience. With the help of Judge Calabrese, they totally redesigned the experience before people even entered the courtroom. Some of their changes included:

  • Hallways to the courtroom were wide and colorful;
  • Instead of pictures of serious judges on the walls, they put up colorful photos of the neighborhood;
  • Holding cells for the defendants were not enclosed with the traditional bars; rather, they used thick glass, and natural light flooded the cell; and
  • Signs around the building were intentionally placed to put people at ease. (e.g., “Questions? Our court officers are happy to help.”)

In the courtroom, the judge’s bench was not looming high above the defendants; rather, it was at eye-level.

Judge Calabrese broke free from the traditional courtroom language and instead smiled and talked to the defendants. He asked them questions about their lives. He worked to make them feel valued and cared for, and, on occasion, was known to not just shake hands with, but even hug the defendants. Applause was not only allowed but often encouraged.

However, at the core of what changed this justice system was the development of relationships and a respectful experience, and it was done in a series of small changes to the way they shaped the disciplinary experience.

Transformational Discipline

As in the case of the criminal justice system, most traditional disciplinary systems in parenting, education, and sports are aimed at one objective: Obedience.

When someone behaves in a way that does not meet our expectations and standards, this is not just an inconvenience to us but hurtful to the group. So, we dole out a punishment to get compliance. I call this “transactional discipline” because it often comes from a place of someone needing to pay a price for poor choices.

Transformational discipline, on the other hand, is a complete shift, not only in aim and strategy, but also in the very heart with which we discipline.

The 3 keys to transformational discipline are:

  1. Develop character.
  2. Strengthen the relationship.
  3. Discover solutions.

Many parents, educators, and coaches have lost sight of the purpose for discipline. Discipline comes from the Latin word disciplinam, which means “instruction”. Instruction looks a lot different from punishing. So, the strategies of transformational discipline are very different!

The Red Hook Justice Center revolutionized the very strategies in which they disciplined community members, but none of them would have been effective if they had a judge who was not compassionate and empathetic. Judge Calabrese changed his very heart for the people in his courtroom. Instead of seeing problems, he saw opportunities to help get people back on track in life.

The heart posture by which we discipline is the most important and exciting aspect of transformational discipline. In a transactional approach, discipline is an inconvenience to us. We get tired of holding our athletes accountable, and we don’t enjoy doling out punishment.

When we approach discipline with the heart of a transformational leader, we see poor choices and “misbehavior” not as an inconvenience but as an opportunity to help build character. We see ourselves as mentors. In this approach, the relationship will grow stronger because the individual will know we respect and care for them.

Strategy Changes

So, what does transformational discipline look like in coaching? I’ve written about this before in some other articles: 4 Steps to Transformational Discipline and 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Discipline. It’s not a super-simple system that can be broken down into 5 steps. However, Step 1 is this: Change the lens with which you view behavioral issues. See opportunities, not obstacles. Meet people where they are and help them find the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes!

Further Reading

  1. Story of Courtroom
  2. In 1988, Life magazine called Red Hook “the crack capital of America.”