Red Hook Justice

An experimental court in a crime-ridden neighborhood is part of a legal revolution that has become a model for courts nationwide.

Film Signature Image
Independent Lens, True Stories
Premiere Date
May 24, 2005
60 minutes

Meema Spadola

Meema Spadola is a producer, director, and writer in television and radio living in Brooklyn, a short subway ride from Red Hook. She has produced documentaries for PBS, HBO, Cinemax, Sundance Channel, and Public Radio. Her past work includes the Independent Lens documentary Guns and Mothers, about two mothers on opposite sides of the gun control debate, Show more co-produced with director Thom Powers. Spadola’s ITVS documentary Our House premiered on PBS in 2000 and featured the sons and daughters in five diverse gay and lesbian American families. It received jury awards for best documentary at both the New York and Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals, and has been broadcast worldwide. Spadola and Powers’s documentaries Breasts and Private Dicks, about women’s and men’s attitudes about their bodies, have been broadcast on HBO to critical acclaim and high ratings, and interviews produced by Spadola were featured in HBO’s 2001 adaptation of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Spadola produced the four-part series Shorts From the Underground for the Sundance Channel, and her radio documentaries have appeared on Public Radio’s This American Life. She is the author of Breasts: Our Most Public Private Part (Wildcat Canyon Press), based on her documentary of the same name, and was a contributor to Out of the Ordinary (St. Martin’s Press) a collection of essays by sons and daughters with LGBT parents. Her knitting patterns have appeared in Stitch N’ Bitch (Workman Press) and the magazine Interweave Knits. Spadola grew up in Searsmont, Maine and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Show less

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The Film

In 2000, an experimental court opened its doors in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a neighborhood plagued by a cycle of unemployment, poverty, and crime. The Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC) is at the center of a legal revolution: the community justice movement, which emphasizes neighborhood-focused problem solving and rehabilitation over punishment and doing time. Offenders are often sentenced to job training, drug counseling, and community service.

America’s criminal courts are clogged with more than 11 million low-level crimes each year, many of them committed by repeat offenders. The RHCJC was created to stop this revolving-door phenomenon by turning around the lives of those who find themselves repeatedly before the bench and healing the surrounding community. Red Hook Justice profiles the early years of this bold new court.

The film focuses on the dramatic stories of three Red Hook defendants and a handful of staffers at the Center. Anthony and Michael are orphaned teen brothers who have multiple drug arrests and are struggling to get their lives in order, all while resisting the pull of the streets and their family’s legacy of imprisonment and death. Letitia, who has sold drugs and worked as a prostitute, gets pregnant shortly after being arrested while trying to buy heroin.

Featured RHCJC staff include Brett Taylor, a passionate defender who handles a hundred criminal cases at a time and wonders if this new court helps or hurts his clients; District Attorney Gerianne Abriano, who works to redefine the role of prosecutor and sometimes finds herself in the unlikely position of advocating for drug treatment rather than jail; and Judge Alex Calabrese, the public face of the court who takes a hands-on approach with defendants.

The U.S. Department of Justice has called the Red Hook Community Justice Center “a standard bearer for the entire country.”