Dangerous Drivers, Restored

A pioneering justice program in Brooklyn is giving dangerous drivers a meaningful way to get back on the right side of the law.

At the Red Hook Community Justice Center, TransAlt advocates and members of Families for Safe Streets have teamed up with Council Member Brad Lander, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, Judge Alex Calabrese and the Center for Court Innovation to launch a first-of-its-kind “restorative justice” program for traffic violators.

Traditionally, when a driver is caught breaking the law police officers will issue a summons that the driver can plead guilty to, and be sentenced to jail time or ordered to pay a fine. In this pilot program, court officials in Red Hook are working with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office to identify drivers who could benefit from a more in-depth look into how they broke the law and why it matters. Eligible drivers are required to participate in a 90-minute interactive exchange to help them better understand the consequences of their actions.

In September of this year, 14 men and women whose charges ranged from reckless driving to DUI participated in the first-ever Driver Accountability Group. Their curriculum included video testimonials from Families for Safe Streets and a lesson in harm reduction. A series of exercises helped the drivers identify the risks they take in their daily driving, why they take those risks, and how they can take concrete steps to reduce them. Drivers engaged in a motivational counseling session and were asked to detail the impact of their actions on other people.

Restorative justice programs like this operate alongside courtrooms around the world, addressing a wide range of criminal acts, from sex offenses to prison violence. By focusing on repairing the harm caused by criminal acts instead of applying adversarial punishments, restorative justice can benefit the community, the crime victim and the offender. Similar programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, post-traumatic stress in crime victims and the cost of prosecution. In Red Hook, the Driver Accountability Group is the first time a restorative justice program has been vigorously applied to traffic safety issues.

“If we really want safe streets, we need drivers to understand that traffic safety laws aren’t mean-spirited and summonses aren’t about making money. In Red Hook, we’re trying to teach those lessons at the moment when it matters most,” explained TransAlt Legislative and Legal Manager Marco Conner.

“The most important thing for me was that the driver who hit him understood the pain he caused and how close he came to taking someone’s life,”

For now, the pilot curriculum is being offered twice a month to drivers summonsed by officers in the 72nd, 76th and 78th precincts. Advocates are figuring out how to expand the program to operate more often and reach a greater variety of offenders.

None of the participants in the Driver Accountability Group thus far have been involved in a crash where someone was killed or injured, but it’s anticipated that program participants will eventually include such offenders, and this is especially important to members of Families for Safe Streets.

“I watched my husband’s long recovery, and our ongoing anxiety and fear continues. But I get no pleasure from the law wrecking someone’s life,” said Dahlia Goldenberg, whose husband suffered severe injuries after a driver struck him while crossing the street.

“The most important thing for me was that the driver who hit him understood the pain he caused and how close he came to taking someone’s life,” Goldenberg said. “The drivers who participate in the Driver Accountability Group could be the start of a culture shift in New York, where reckless driving, speeding and lack of care become unacceptable. I do think that’s possible.”

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