The First Community Justice Center Comes to Rockaway

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 A new community justice center aims to give low-level offenders, especially youth, a place to go locally that will hold them accountable in productive ways, while not leaving them with a record to carry through their lifetime. The Rockaway Community Justice Center is now serving the peninsula.

The Rockaway Community Justice Center, located at 1922 Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, hopes to give low-level offenders an option on the peninsula that aims to provide services to help boost them as a productive member of society, rather than time spent behind bars or carrying a record that could affect their life due to a misdemeanor.

During a press conference on Thursday, May 28, Lori Zeno, founder and executive director of Queens Defenders, which will operate the Justice Center, explained further what they hope to achieve.

According to Zeno, the Rockaway Community Justice Center will provide “restorative and rehabilitative remedies to local crime. Ultimately, we will strengthen relationships between the residents of Rockaway, local police and our borough’s criminal justice system,” she said. “The Justice Center is going to offer community-led legal hearings to address low-level misdemeanor cases, housing court mediation, juvenile crimes as well as other social programming. Access to fair, equitable and restorative justice in their own community by their own community peers.”

The Center provides a local facility for those who would normally have to make the trip to appear in court in Kew Gardens. “Each year, close to a thousand arrests are made of young adults, 18 to 24 in the Rockaways, starting with a desk appearance ticket and after they get a ticket, they normally would appear in court in Kew Gardens for an arraignment,” Zeno said. “Now the problem is traveling to the Kew Gardens courthouse is one-and-a-half to two hours one way. Plus, some other reasons. Maybe it’s an economic problem, maybe they’re single moms and have to get back to pick their kids up for school or they have a job and need to take the whole day off, and they can lose the job. There’s a whole lot of reasons why people have a very difficult time from Far Rockaway going to Kew Gardens, so sometimes they don’t go. And then the court assumes it’s because they don’t care and they’re intentionally not showing up and they issue a warrant. And then what happens is people with cases and charges that were never resolved in the criminal justice system, they have this warrant, and they get picked up on this warrant and they spend one night in jail when they normally would never and then there’s the possibility when they come into court, they get fines that they cannot afford and sometimes a criminal record, which affects them in the future. So now many of those cases can be handled right here in the Rockaway Community Justice Center.”

The Rockaway Community Justice Center is an effort made possible by the Queens Defenders, the Queens District Attorney, Rockaway’s local police precincts and elected leaders. Those who appear at the Rockaway Community Justice Center will face a volunteer judge and jury of neighbors and be compelled to take accountability for their actions but without receiving a criminal record that could have lifelong consequences. “This peer and community-led alternative ensures accountability with dignity and an end goal of restoring the offender to his or her position as a productive member of society,” Zeno said. “Individuals who participate in the Rockaway Community Justice Center will receive job training, skills development and networking opportunities with local businesses and community leaders.”

The Center aims to work with local businesses to provide opportunities for youth to work and learn something, like an internship, rather than typical community service. That community service time would be spent towards helping local businesses.

Councilman Donovan Richards, who has supported Queens Defenders in their efforts and Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz joined in for the conference at the Center, while elected officials like Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato, Senators Joseph Addabbo and James Sanders and clergy members joined in virtually.

Katz expressed her support for the justice center’s goals. “People deserve second chances. They deserve a right to see what their potential is. They can’t do that if a record follows them for the rest of their life. It is a difficult thing to make it anyway in today’s day and time, but to do it with a record is especially an issue. About 75% of cases that come from these precincts are non-violent. I’m very excited about the lives that are going to be affected by the Rockaway Community Justice Center,” Katz said. ‘We hope in pre-arrest to find young people that have had issues and the possibility of arrest, and get this community program involved, and figure out whether they need work course development, rehabilitation, health services or mentors to show them that there is a right path in their lives. On post-arrest, we want to make sure this group of individuals from the community and Queens Defenders work together with the DA’s office to get to a point where they’re doing community service or learning more about their lives and maybe going through these programs and getting their charge dismissed and sealed. No record. And after an arrest, figuring out how to return them to this Justice Center to make sure that they go through the programs necessary to give them the tools for the rest of their lives. On one hand, we want to make Queens is safe, to make sure we deal with violent criminals, making sure they’re going through the system, but at the same time, saving the younger folks in our communities from having a record and problems for the rest of their lives for doing offenses that they probably wouldn’t commit when they’re older.”

Richards, who has shown Queens Defenders support in other efforts like youth court and community services, praised the organization and vowed to continue to show support in this new endeavor. “It’s literally saving lives of young people in our community who wouldn’t have a second opportunity,” Richards said. “A low-level offense shouldn’t equal a life sentence for our young people and unfortunately, that’s what happened in communities like the Rockaways historically.” Richards hopes the Center will allow for some change going forward.

With coronavirus still looming, much of the Center’s work will continue virtually, but they hope to start accepting cases in mid-June, and working with local businesses as they start to re-open in the future.

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