North Nashville judge runs ‘unprecedented’ courtroom aimed to rehabilitate low-level criminals

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Nashville's Killing Field

NASHVILLE, Tenn (WKRN) — The McGruder Center sits in the heart of North Nashville. For some, it’s a refuge, surrounded by violence.

For the past 3 years, violent crime has rocked Nashville’s North Precinct, with 77 homicides in that time. It’s a grim fact one judge is hoping to turn around.

On a normal day, when someone commits a crime, the process is generally the same. The person is arrested, appears before a judge inside the Justice A.A. Birch Building, the judge makes his or her ruling, and the process continues from there. However, a different kind of courtroom is helping to stop young adults from becoming repeat offenders.

“I have always known that North Nashville and parts of Nashville, had some serious issues that were dealing with lack of resources and opportunities and you know when you’re growing up in North Nashville you can’t help but know that there are some issues,” explained Judge Rachel Bell, Founder of the Music City Community Courtroom.

Judge Bell has served as a General Sessions Court Judge since 2012. Bell, a third generation Nashvillian, was re-elected to her seat in 2014 on the slogan, “Nashville’s Judge serving ON and OFF the bench, Ringing the BELL for Justice!!”

Judge Bell established the Music City Community Court. It is the first of its kind in the state of Tennessee. While there is a prosecutor and a defendant, it is an experience unlike those who are facing criminal and civil charges.

“Right now, we are still doing the normal process, somebody is maybe charged with a crime, maybe someone is arrested. Somebody does get booked, but when it comes time for the prosecutor, the DA’s office to decide to prosecute the case or not, we are an alternative to incarceration,” said Judge Bell, explaining the process.

She likes to call it justice outside of the courtroom. Instead of sending low-level criminals to jail, at the Community Court, they opt for alternatives like community service, job training, and rehabilitation.

Court is held inside the McGruder Center. “It’s unprecedented to have a judge in North Nashville; it’s unprecedented to have a court waiving court cost fees and expunging records,” Judge Bell said, “Right in the heart of an impoverished area.” She continued, “The number one zip code – not number one in the state of Tennessee, not the number one in the South – the number one in the United States of America for arrests.”

According to a 2018 Brookings Institution study, the 37208 zip code had the nations highest incarceration rate among men and women in their 30s.

“We do have individuals that have broken the law; we do have individuals that have to come to the court, but this is a diversionary court; this is an alternative to incarceration, and we are allowing individuals ages 18-30 for a court that we named C.A.R.E.,” said Judge Bell.

C.A.R.E. stands for Creating Avenues for Restoration and Empowerment. Since its inception in 2012, the program has assisted over 11,488 people, helping them gain access on the method to get their record expunged, restoring voting rights, and giving people a second chance.

“Reduce crime revivalism, and that will make the community whole, and then for people to have access to resources,” explained Judge Bell.

Judge Bell said the ultimate goal of the program is to partner with the Metro Police Department to give people who commit low-level crime to appear before the community court, in hopes of preventing first time offenders from ever having to step foot inside the Downtown Courthouse.

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