Collaborative Justice, Right Before My Eyes
While on gap year, Elisha Baker experienced JDC-Israel's innovative and restorative approach to criminal justice.
By Elisha Baker - JDC Entwine Volunteer | January 27, 2022
When Elisha Baker started volunteering with JDC-Israel through a partnership with the Shalom Hartman Institute, he experienced its Community Courts program, a partnership between JDC and the Israeli government that takes an innovative approach to criminal justice, emphasizing rehabilitation rather than punishment. In this reflection, Elisha reflects on his experience in the Community Court, and how he was inspired to see that criminal justice could be beneficial, transformative, and holistic.
I arrived early on a Wednesday morning at the small courthouse down the road from the Jerusalem Municipality. Intrigued, and with no idea what to expect, I made my way through the calm waiting area and into the courtroom — smaller than the courtrooms I had seen in America. I was immediately struck by the close physical proximity of the judge, the defendant’s stand, the defense counsel’s table, and the prosecution’s table. I sat down in my seat, no more than five feet away from the stand, and watched the first defendant of the day walk in with a genuine smile.
Since 2014, JDC has been operating and advancing the Community Courts program within the broader Israeli Criminal Trial Court system. Instead of trying and incarcerating those convicted of misdemeanors and low-intermediate level felonies, the program creates an opportunity for rehabilitation. Consenting defendants work together with the judge, public defenders, prosecutors, and social workers on individualized, multi-stage rehabilitation processes that include community service, physical and mental wellbeing, volunteering, education, and more. The ultimate goal is to break the cycle of crime, incarceration, release, repeat.
As part of my yearlong gap year on the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Hevruta program, I have been fortunate to volunteer with JDC through Entwine — JDC’s young adult initiative. My work at JDC, centered around justice and social mobility, gave me this amazing opportunity to visit the Community Court in Jerusalem. I have always been fascinated by alternative methods of criminal justice, but prior to my experience with the Joint, I had never seen anything of the sort in action or heard of a systemized alternative to incarceration.
My impression of the workings of the justice system was that it was filled with tension, a culture of intense legal argument. So, imagine my surprise when the first defendant walked in that Wednesday morning grinning, and even more so when the judge smiled back and greeted him warmly and personally. It was clear right away that they had developed a rapport.
Thanks to my time with JDC, I left court with a forever-altered perspective on what justice could look like.
It turned out that I had picked a day to visit that began on the most positive note. That particular defendant was in court for the last time, having successfully completed the last stage of his rehabilitation process. And it was so beautiful when he started speaking — in Arabic. After hearing heartwarming comments by the public defender, the prosecutor, and the judge, the man emotionally closed his speech in Hebrew, which he had clearly worked on as part of his rehabilitation process. In a touching moment of interfaith unity, a picture was taken with the judge and everyone involved — including the defendant’s parents — holding up his certificate of completion. I saw genuine pride in everyone’s eyes, and it was then when I really understood the good faith efforts put in by both “sides” of the case.
As my day in Community Court went on, not every conversation was smooth sailing. I learned quickly that each defendant was in court to discuss their individual progress. Another conversation stood out to me. The defendant was with a middle-aged Israeli Jewish woman. As he did with every defendant, the judge began the dialogue warmly, asking her to share how she was feeling. She spoke briefly, giving a positive report. The prosecutor spoke next. In a calm but stern manner, she addressed the defendant’s effort level. She told the defendant that in order for the prosecution to advance her to the next rehabilitation stage, they would need to see more work on her part. The defendant, understandably upset, argued a little bit with the prosecutor before the judge calmly reminded her that pushing her harder was part of the process and part of working together as a team. The defendant got that message and agreed to work harder. She left the courtroom not ready to begin a new stage of her rehabilitation, but with a new determination to get to that next phase.
As she walked out, I realized that these were the kinds of conversations that make collaborative justice truly … collaborative. It’s not an easy path out of jail for these defendants. They must show the court, through their actions and attitude, that they honestly care about their rehabilitation. This was the answer to my most burning questions: How do the Community Courts go about achieving what they advertise, helping defendants out of the cycle of crime? How do they make sure the defendants aren’t just going through the motions of rehabilitation? The glowing pride in the room with the first defendant made so much more sense. The difficult path towards completion brings everyone involved so much closer together. Having been pushed to achieve certain goals and get to a better place in life, I can imagine defendants leave with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and a determination to remain in the positive places in life that they worked toward.
During my day in Community Court, I witnessed difficult conversations about effort, brief check-ins on progress, happy moments when defendants moved on to their next stage, and elation as a defendant completed his process entirely. The workings of rehabilitation and the problem-solving approach to justice happened before my very eyes.
Thanks to my time with JDC I left court that day with a forever-altered perspective on what justice could look like. This justice was an effective, socially beneficial, service-based, good-faith effort to offer defendants the opportunity to work their way out of the cycle of crime and into better places in society.
Elisha Baker is a 19-year-old student from Brookline, MA currently studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s gap year program, Hevruta. He went to high school at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA, and was active in Mock Trial and student publications, among other interests. Elisha spent seven summers at Camp Yavneh as a camper and counselor. He is passionate about history and law, and is currently interning for JDC in the Ashalim department connecting those passions with Israeli society. He will be attending Columbia University in the fall.