Photos by Conal Thomas

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It was about a decade ago when David Brennan visited New York – and other parts of the United States – to see how community courts worked there, but one vivid scene in particular sticks in his mind.

A woman stood before the judge in the Manhattan courtroom, charged with prostitution. The judge remembered the woman, and asked her why she was back in again, on the same charge as before.

Her landlord was hassling her and she had children to feed, the woman said. So, the judge ordered an investigation into the landlord, and a report on it all within a week.

Then the judge asked the woman if she would go along to a training programme, rather than jail. “She went off and she was delighted,” says Brennan.

When he came back to Dublin soon after, Brennan started to press for a community court here. Efforts in 2007 and 2015 stalled, but Brennan hasn’t given up.

“The really important thing is that the government have twice approached this and it looked as if it was going ahead,” he says.

A Local Response

In community courts, people who have committed smaller crimes are sent on to do community service, or other rehabilitation courses, rather than being sentenced to a number of years in prison, say.

This reduces pressure on courts and prison services, says Brennan. “I strongly believe it favours everybody,” he says.

In the Dublin region in the first quarter of 2018, the Gardaí recorded 2,507 incidents of shop theft, 2,333 public order offences, and 1,727 incidents of disorderly conduct, according to data from the Central Statistics Office. (Crime data, these days, comes with a caveat that it is of questionable quality.)

David Brennan has been pushing for community courts.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Daithí de Roiste says such a court could benefit Dublin City Council, too, as it deals with petty crimes such as spraying graffiti. And by easing pressure on council resources, through community service, he says.

In 2007, Brennan was chief executive of the Dublin City Business Association, now DublinTown, which championed a community court for Dublin.

The idea was revived in 2014 when Julius Lang, of the Centre for Court Innovation in New York, was invited to Dublin to make a case for a community court here.

Around this time, Brennan met with Department of Justice officials here, including the secretary general at the time, Brian Purcell.

The Dublin City Business Association “always pushed it as a viable model to improving things in the city”, Brennan says, swirling a glass cup of tea outside Shoe Lane coffee on Tara Street last Friday morning.

This idea for Dublin didn’t evolve beyond a ministerial endorsement in 2015, when then-Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald showed enthusiasm for it, says Brennan.

A Department of Justice statement from July 2015 says Fitzgerald “looks forward to bringing forward her proposals for the establishment of a pilot Community Court in Dublin in the early Autumn”.

Brennan is still unclear what happened. “For some reason, it was stopped,” he says. “I’m very disappointed. We put in a enormous amount of effort over a number of years. Kept on raising it. Kept on raising it.”

On the Ground

To succeed, community courts need local knowledge, boots on the ground, and empathy, says Brennan.

He saw another case in the United States where a man “built like a truck” had drunkenly assaulted three police officers.

He had no previous convictions, and a wife and kids, and was working 90 hours a week at a local restaurant, says Brennan.

So the judge ordered the restaurant owner into court two days later to explain what was going on, he says. The man was again directed to local community services.

Brennan says the pilot community court would have cost about €1 million, according to his estimates. Council officials and local businesses were supportive, he says.

Brennan, who is 66 years old, has a background in business. After a stint in the British army when he was 18, he went on to run a jewellery store with his wife on Wicklow Street.

Local communities need help to support at-risk teenagers and young people, he said. Community courts often link in with training and community facilities; those convicted on misdemeanours, small criminal acts, get a second chance, and a way to give back through programmes and community service.

They can avoid lengthy court cases, too. “Instead, society, in the form of community courts, takes that person and works with them,” says Brennan.

Linking In

There are programmes already working with at-risk youth around the city, which, perhaps, could link into a community court if it were ever set up.

In Cherry Orchard, for example, there’s Horse Power, which was set up after the death of 16-year-old Warren Kenny in a quad bike accident in December 2015.

The programme works with several at-risk young men in the area.

“We had to steer them away from this risky behaviour,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan. “Huge steps” have been made in building community ties and improving relations with Gardaí, he says.

Horse Power is about prevention and early intervention, says Brendan Cummins, of youth organisation FamiliBase in Ballyfermot.

The guys involved in the programme get to say what they want to see change in Cherry Orchard, too. At the moment, that means trying to set up a yard for their horses as part of the programme, says Cummins.

De Roiste of Fianna Fáil is no longer sure the political will is there for Ireland’s first community court, though.

Looking Ahead

In May 2015, the assistant secretary of the Department of Justice wrote to the head of the Courts Service, to say that the department was looking to meet to talk about the feasibility of a community court for Dublin city centre.

This community court would be set up in Dublin’s inner city to deal with “quality-of-life” offences, says the letter from Assistant Secretary Conan McKenna.

This group met a few times, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. But the department declined to release most of the records requested about it, because it said the issue was the subject of ongoing deliberations.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said the department “wishes to build on this work and is still examining a number of possibilities”.

The emphasis of a community court is, the spokesperson said, speeding up the legal process and reducing repeated offending. It could also help put offenders in touch with the proper services.

The department is also looking at a “conditional cautioning system”– which usually involves an offender admitting to a crime and agreeing to meet certain conditions in order to avoid prosecution – but there are several models for those, said the spokesperson.

Brennan thinks that setting up a dedicated committee to spearhead a pilot project in Dublin once more is the best way forward – with department officials, council representatives, and members of the Gardaí.

For him, it is only a matter of time until the city gets a community court. “I believe it will come,” he says.

Cónal Thomas

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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