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Over the past several years, community justice initiatives around the country have sought to redefine the relationship between criminal justice agencies and citizens. Community justice advocates a problem-solving approach to crime and safety issues that calls on judges, prosecutors, defenders, police, and probation officers to do more than churn cases through the criminal justice mill. Community justice calls on criminal justice agencies to pursue new goals instead of simply responding after a crime has occurred. Among these goals are preventing crime, increasing community involvement and neighborhood safety, and handling complex problems (e.g., drug abuse and family dysfunction) that often fuel criminal behavior.

This monograph, Surveying Communities: A Resource for Community Justice Planners, shares the experiences of those who have conducted successful surveys that helped to develop the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, New York. The lessons learned from the preparation, administration, and analysis of this community survey can assist other jurisdictions in achieving a better understanding of community needs and delivering more responsive programs to meet those needs.

—Robert Victor Wolf
Director of Communications
Center for Court Innovation

For this approach to succeed, however, community justice practitioners need information. They need to know a community’s strengths and weaknesses; what local residents want from the criminal justice system; and most important, what neighborhoods identify as their priorities. Are youth gangs the most pressing problem for local residents? Is drug dealing? Or are their concerns more prosaic—teenagers loitering, a noisy nightclub, or litter in an empty lot?

There are many ways to identify a community’s concerns. One approach is to interview neighborhood leaders such as clergy, the heads of business groups, and school principals. Another way is to hold focus groups that bring together citizens—teenagers, single mothers, members of various ethnic groups—to discuss their neighborhood. These methods, however, only reach a small segment of the community. To build on this information and develop the most complete picture possible, many community justice planners use another tool: community surveys.

Conducting a survey requires time, manpower, and the ability to design a scientifically sound questionnaire and analyze its results. Although this monograph cannot provide community justice planners with time and staff, it can give planners a head start on how to craft and conduct a survey.

Surveying Communities: A Resource for Community Justice Planners
May 2003