For Brenda Bratton Blom, JD, PhD, MPS, director of the Clinical Law Program at the School of Law, instilling respect for public service and access to justice is the building block of a legal education. To that end, Blom organized the first national conference on community justice, held March 8-10 at the law school.
The symposium attracted close to 300 academics, judges, lawyers, and representatives of nonprofit, community, and faith-based organizations to share innovative approaches to addressing crime and providing an effective alternative to the traditional criminal justice system.
"The symposium is about supporting a larger conversation in our society about criminalizing poverty," said Blom, associate professor at the School. "When we send someone to prison for a minor drug offense, can we live with that choice?"
"We're teaching students how to prosecute analytically and to look at the courtroom and ask who's coming through and what communities are being impacted," Blom added. "We're asking, 'What are the lawyer's skills that make a difference in a community's capacities to solve problems?'"
The morning keynote speaker, Elijah Anderson, PhD, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City, described how people living in dense urban areas sometimes view the world differently.
"Murder is so common in black neighborhoods that it barely makes the newspaper," he said. "You'll find the story in the back, back section of the paper. Black people say,'Well, when a white person is killed, that's front page news.' They see a huge discrepancy between how crime is covered in their neighborhood. And this really supports the idea of alienation in the inner city and the code of the street."
Anderson said many black men, poor and undereducated, search fruitlessly for work.
"We have so many people competing for jobs-white, black, immigrants, young, old-that the poor inner city male doesn't stand a chance," he said. "They're thrown back on the streets. The question a young man asked me many years ago still rings in my ears: 'Dr. Anderson, why is it so hard for me to get a job but so easy for me to sell drugs?'"
One alternative approach to dealing with crime, which has attracted international attention and inspired dozens of imitators, was initiated by the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multijurisdictional community court that handles criminal, family, and housing matters. The center was founded in June 2000 in Brooklyn, New York, in a neighborhood that had been worn down by violence and crime. Judge Alex Calabrese, JD, the presiding judge at Red Hook, delivered the symposium's lunch keynote address. He said community justice courts are making a difference in how the legal system handles "low-level crime that affects the quality of life in the neighborhood."
"In a traditional court system, a person facing a minor drug offense could end up in criminal court for the drug charge, in housing court because he could lose his public housing, and in family court because it could affect his custody agreement," said Calabrese. "We combine it under one roof."
Instead of jail time, offenders are often sentenced to job training, drug counseling, and community service. Red Hook also offers an array of services including education programs and mediation.
"People feel that the Community Center understands their problems and that we can help solve them," said Calabrese.
The symposium also included problem-solving workshops and discussions on building collaborations between communities and government organizations.
Terri Ricks, JD, program manager of the Community Justice Initiative at the School and co-organizer of the symposium, says a teamwork approach to criminal justice is beginning in Baltimore. "You need a comprehensive approach when it comes to problem-solving," Ricks says. "You're looking at changing opportunities for people. But it's not something that happens instantly. We're very fortunate to have the pieces here in Baltimore-we just need to put them together."
Father Gregory Boyle, SJ, a Jesuit priest and founder of Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, delivered an address during the symposium's Community Justice Banquet. Boyle described how he founded the employment referral center and economic development program for at-risk and gang-involved youth in 1988.
Youth were the focus of the symposium's opening night. The Youth Media Showcase-Community Justice: Realities & Possibilities featured 12 video and audio presentations from teenagers throughout the country that addressed the questions: "How can youth-made media impact violence and justice in communities?" and, "What impact does crime and violence have on youth-made media?" A panel discussion followed the presentations.
Click here to watch Terry Hickey, JD, adjunct professor at the School and executive director of the Baltimore program Community Law in Action, and panelist Lendl Tellington, an amateur Baltimore filmmaker, discuss the symposium on a morning news show.
For more information about the Community Justice Clinic at the law school or to watch Blom talk about the symposium, click here.