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A pretty 20-year-old in a light pink sweatshirt and blue jeans has been brought in front of Judge Alex Calabrese of New York City’s Red Hook Community Justice Center. The charge is prostitution. She waits, patiently and expressionless, while the judge quickly glances towawd the computer screen in front of him. The monitor is banked low and tilted back on his desk — so there is no visual obstruction between him and the defendant. “The health danger is incredible,” Judge Calabrese murmurs under his breath. “For someone so young, it makes no sense.” The judge clicks on a box in the lower right hand corner titled, “Pre-trial Interview.” This brings up a window giving detailed information about the defendant, including the last grade she completed, her junior year. It also lists her as unemployed. With these facts clearly displayed on the screen in front of him, Calabrese acts quickly and decisively. He sentences the girl to community service, job readiness training, and health counseling. “That’s my favorite sentence,” the judge confides to an observer. “I call it the triple header.” To the girl, he elaborates, “If it appears after a while that you have not been arrested again, I could figure out a way for you to have no criminal record.” The job readiness training program is six days long, and the judge encourages her to complete the entire program. He also warns her that the sentence will be far more strict should she return. “At 20 years old, I’m sorry, I just don’t see this as being something you want to do. We can tell from the technology whether you’ve been here before very easily.” Since the technology will also track the defendant’s progress after she leaves the courtroom, the judge will know whether or not she completed her community service assignment and the job readiness training. “If she does even part of that,” he says, “I’m going to really consider that the next time.” At the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which opened in June and is still in the initial phase of its development, state-of- the-art technology is coupled with an innovative approach to justice. The product of a joint venture between the U.S. Department of Justice, the City of New York, and the New York state courts, the Justice Center cost about $6 million in planning and construction. Yet, Legal Aid attorneys fear that the advanced technology may sometimes impair justice rather than enhance it. They are concerned that sometimes the system is not airtight, and has the potential to compromise the defendant’s rights. Located on the Brooklyn, N.Y., waterfront, Red Hook is an industrial neighborhood that has seen better times. The average family income, based on 1990 census data, is $9,000. “When somebody is arrested,” says Adam Mansky, the coordinator of the Justice Center, “it’s a moment of crisis for the people involved. This is a good opportunity to connect the defendant to services to get them on the right track.” True to its mission of community revitalization, the Justice Center is housed in a former parochial school that closed in the ’70s. All the services offered by the Center, which include substance abuse treatment and high school equivalency training, are available to the community on a walk-in basis. Some of the staff, including the court officers and Legal Aid attorneys, coach the summer youth baseball league organized by the Center. The first multi-jurisdictional community court in the nation, it will handle a variety of criminal, civil, and family court matters all heard by one judge. These are less serious criminal cases from three police precincts, with a population totaling 200,000. The philosophical aim of the court, according to Mansky, is “to improve public confidence in the justice system.” Part of the effort to accomplish this goal is to get as much information in front of the judge as possible, in a clear, comprehensible format. “All individualized sanctions require an understanding of the circumstances that bring people to court,” Mansky explains. The model for the Red Hook Community Justice Center is New York’s Midtown Community Court, the first community court in the nation — it opened in 1993. Developed by the New York state court system with their research and development partner, the Center for Court Innovation, the Midtown Court uses technology to help the judge make an informed decision efficiently, as well as to see its outcome. The entire case proceedings, from start to finish, are put together online. Before the information reaches the judge’s screen, it is compiled from a number of sources. After the defendant’s identity is confirmed in Albany, N.Y., the rap sheet is then transmitted electronically back to the Justice Center in Red Hook. At this point, where other courts manually attach a paper version to the defendant’s paper case file, in Red Hook the rap sheet is downloaded electronically, and is added to an electronic record. The arrest information from the police is also transmitted electronically to the case file. All of this is entered into DCRIMS, the community court’s adaptation of CRIMS, which is New York’s statewide criminal record information system. The clerks then docket the case and add it to the calendar, and the judge is provided with a complete electronic file. Taking the Midtown model one step further, the system in Red Hook will also encompass civil and family matters. Cases from mutltiple jurisdictions will all be heard in the same courtroom, and by the same judge. The defendant is then led to a room where an employee of the city’s Criminal Justice Agency conducts a pre-arraignment interview. These interviews, which help the judge determine whether or not someone should be held on bail or released on recognizance, are standard throughout New York City. The questions ascertain the defendant’s community ties and whether they can afford their own legal representation. But the Justice Center has added some questions further probing the defendant’s background. These additional questions ask if the defendant is engaging in drug and alcohol usage, and if the defendant has interest in using the services available at the Justice Center. Not only are the questions adapted for this particular court, the method of recording them is also new. Lisa Fonseca, a CJA employee, fills out the questionnaire entirely online. At the downtown court in Brooklyn, everything is transcribed onto paper, and Fonseca is a fan of the Red Hook system. Not only is it faster and more efficient but “you can read it,” she says. “It’s no one’s handwriting, so it’s more legible.” From there, the defendant is taken to a holding cell below the courtroom, with security glass rather than bars. “It’s calming, and probably better security,” Mansky says of the glass. After the cases have been heard, all of the information is entered into DCRIMS, including the disposition and the sentence. According to Joseph Lombardo, the principle information technology analyst for the New York State courts, DCRIMS is “geared toward being able to enter things in realtime … so it won’t hold up proceedings.” DCRIMS allows the courts many shortcuts, including a feature that warrants everybody left over on the calendar by clicking a button. Jim McMillan, director of the Court Technology Laboratory for the National Center for State Courts, says all courts would benefit from being able to access a defendant’s background information with a single click. But it is even more useful for misdemeanors and criminal felonies because “you’re dealing with people with complex issues … typically courts don’t have time to be speedreaders.” When Judge Calabrese clicks on the pre-trial interview window, he can scroll through data that, if printed out, would fill 12 pages. That is a lot of paper to flip through for a judge who hears an average of 70 cases a day. But not everyone is in favor of the wealth of privileged information that the technology allows the judge to have. The part of the interview created for the Justice Center is meant for diagnostic purposes, yet the Legal Aid attorneys at the Justice Center are somewhat wary of it. It has become standard practice for the Legal Aid attorneys to print out the sheet and bring it to court. Apart from the information it provides, having a copy of the interview is useful during inevitable computer breakdowns. “When the system is down, I’m able to hand that to the judge and get the arraignment finished,” says Legal Aid lawyer Brett Taylor. “That’s happened more times than I’d like to admit to you.” Defense lawyers fear that some of the questions that have been added to the CJA interview can elicit information about the defendant that can potentially be used against them. The interviews are intended to encourage the defendant to take advantage of the services available at the Justice Center. “They get a lot of information that is helpful in one instance, and then gets turned to later on to be used against [the defendant],” says Patricia Ragone, a Legal Aid attorney at the Justice Center. Taylor remembers a reserve judge asking for a client to be placed in a treatment program. When the Legal Aid attorney protested, Taylor remembers, “[the judge] said ‘Well, the defendant admits the drug use in the CJA interview.’ ” Overall, the Legal Aid lawyers find the system to be extremely helpful, but they would like to see a change in the way the information is used and distributed at Red Hook. “ Obviously the D.A. has access,” says Taylor. “Do you sacrifice individual liberties and rights to try to get somebody the help they should have? Or do you treat this as a normal case?” Based on seven years of experience at specialized courts such as the Midtown Community Court, Mansky argues that the system works successfully. “Judges get information all the time, and part of their job is to determine what to exclude,” Mansky says, adding that none of the information from the pre-trial interview is used to decide factual guilt or innocence. Anne Swern, a prosecutor with the Brooklyn DA’s office who works at the Justice Center, calls the computer system “refreshingly reliable” and claims that all “information is used in a responsible manner, and to a just result.” Concern over privacy issues is a predictable offshoot of increased dependence on technology — it is a circumstance that is becoming status quo. The Legal Aid attorneys remember to be vigilant and to take notes. The Red Hook Community Justice Center is still a brand-new entity. Computer glitches and debates over evidentiary issues are chinks in the seams of an underlying structure that, when it has been fully realized, has the potential to demystify and expand the role of the justice system for the public that it is designed to serve. The technology employed there eventually will serve to hasten the Justice Center’s success. Yet as the Justice Center grows, it may have to adjust its methods to adhere to legitimate complaints that the system is not infallible. “There are a lot of positive things going on here, and computerization is one of those things,” says Ragone, “but there is a flipside to that. Other people can gloss over that, but we’re the ones that have to be concerned with our clients.” Claire Barliant is a technology reporter for American Lawyer Media.

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