special community courts

Specialist Community Courts for Sex Offenders

Community Justice Courts (CJCs)


- Adrian Smith


Red Hook NYC

The original and perhaps most well known model for a CJC originated at Red Hook in New York City.  It was launched in 2000 and is still going strong, providing a problem solving approach to crime.  The courtroom is a converted school building and hearings deal with low level local crime committed within the Red Hook community, which has a population of approximately 200,000 people. 

A single judge hears all of the cases and has an array of sanctions available, including community restitution projects, short-term psycho-educational groups and long-term treatment (including drug treatment, mental health treatment and psychotherapy). The theory behind the model is that having a single, dedicated Judge enables case planning and a whole person approach, which is not limited to matters of jurisprudence.  The CJC also brings together a range of professional support services including housing, social welfare, and health agencies. The court does not however deal with sex offending as a matter of course, though there are a number of specialist Sex Offence courts throughout USA which are described later in this paper.

North Liverpool Community Justice Centre (NLCJC)

Until recently there had been some support for the development of CJCs in England and Wales, most notably with the opening of the North Liverpool Centre in 2005, which was modelled upon the Red Hook approach.  Sadly this provision was closed by the Government in 2014 amongst much outcry and controversy.  Government research pointed to lack of evidence of efficacy and claimed that the centres workload had fallen to a low volume.  It is notable that a similar argument, about lack of workload is currently being used to justify court closures throughout the country!

Professor George Mair of Liverpool University said at the time, I think its very unfortunate that one of the most exciting initiatives in community justice has been closed down with little evidence to back up such a decision.  Unfortunate indeed but it is clear that Government policy is currently focused on downsizing and cost saving.  The chances of developing an approach to working with sex offenders based upon the twin concepts of problem solving and community justice, is unlikely to find favour with the current administration. Add into the mix, the tendency for Governments to be risk averse with the media and to instinctively follow the populist route, there might seem little scope for manoeuvre. 

The key features of the North Liverpool model were as follows:

         A dedicated circuit Judge

         CJC held within a converted school next door to a Job Centre

         Co-location of court and welfare agency personnel, including police, probation, social services, CPS and Youth Offending Service

         Facility for community voice to be heard through communication forum

The Salford Community Justice Initiative was developed with the North Liverpool model in mind but it suffered from an acute lack of funding and was consequently unsuccessful.  It was based within the local courthouse and did not have the luxury of a dedicated Judge.

Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDAC)

The FDAC was piloted in London from 2008 and was also based upon the problem-solving model, though this time within the family court environment.  The Government is currently more committed to this approach with Edward Timpson (Children and Families Minister) stating that since 2008 the Family Drug and Alcohol Court has thrown an invaluable lifeline to hundreds upon hundreds of families.

FDAC offers a new way of dealing with care proceedings when parental substance misuse causes harm to children.  The court aims to help parents stabilise or stop using drugs and /or alcohol and, where possible, keep families together. The process involves co-ordinating a range of services so that a familys needs and strengths are taken into account, with everyone working towards the best possible outcome for the child: that is, a safe and stable family.  Parents come before the court on a fortnightly basis to report on their detox, therapy and treatment over a period of up to 26 weeks.  Children may be placed temporarily with other family members or in foster care.

The programme is supported by Department for Education funding and is jointly run by Coram and our old friends The Tavistock and Portman Clinic.  Proposals have been in train since last year to roll out a series of additional FDAC courts in 8 other areas of the country.


Sex Offence Courts in the USA

In 2006, Nassau, Westchester and Oswego Counties in New York State became the first jurisdictions in the USA to pilot specialised sex offence courts.  The approach borrowed ideas from CJCs in terms of having a dedicated Judge and strong relationships between professionals but with a greater emphasis on holding perpetrators to account and protecting the public.

The New York Sex Offence Courts include the following core components:

         Keeping victims informed

         Scheduling cases promptly

         Dedicated trained Judge

         Supervising defendants continuously

         Additional judicial monitoring of cases post-conviction

         Building strong relationships with service providers

         Educating and training all court personnel

The Sex Offence Court handles all cases that include a sex offence charge and hears cases from inception through to disposition and ongoing monitoring.  It is considered that a key component of the programme is the ability for the court to monitor progress, which includes rapid calendaring of cases on probation, immediate communication of compliance or non-compliance of court mandates, swift response to violations of conditions of probation and consideration of graduated sanctions.

James McCarthy, Judge of the Oswego County Sex Offender Court, describes a key advantage of the approach;

When sex offenders know that they are being watched and the community knows that the court and probation are keeping a watchful eye on defendants, then it is rare that they will ever get away with something. Hopefully under these circumstances, the sex offender can live somewhere without being demonised, while still being very closely supervised.

For Discussion

This paper provides only a very brief description of some of the approaches adopted with regards to Community Justice Courts in the USA and UK.  It is by no means intended to provide an exhaustive set of judicial innovations and there is no intention to promote one approach above another.  It is intended as no more than a discussion starter.

Readers are nonetheless invited in the first instance to consider the relevance and viability of the above approaches to our own England and Wales jurisdiction and our current political environment.

Adrian Smith March 2016



 Press to return to the HOME PAGE