Bronx Community Solutions

Search This Blog

Friday, December 29, 2006

"How BCS Helped Me"

"I was smoking marijuana pretty heavily. Then I got arrested. I remember a sergeant in Central Booking who told me that even though things seemed bad right now, I could turn it into something positive if I was willing to try.

When my case came before the Judge, he told me that he would grant me an ACD [an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, in which all charges are dismissed after six months or a year as long as the defendant stays out of trouble] if I would go to Bronx Community Solutions for five days of social service classes and counseling.

I remember meeting Robert, Saudi, Ramon, and Tony on my first day at Bronx Community Solutions. They were a great example for me: they gave me high hopes, helped me to recognize my mistakes, and had good advice. Special Terry, a health educator from the City Department of Health, visited to teach one of our classes, and after class she helped me to reactivate my Medicaid and get a copy of my Birth Certificate.

When I got arrested I was out of work and out of school. The people I met at Bronx Community Solutions helped inspire me to do something with my life and right now I’m attending my second semester at the College of New Rochelle. A lot of people give up hope and think they can’t change, but it’s been a year since I smoked marijuana. I stop by Bronx Community Solutions a lot just to say hello because of the respect and friendship that I get there."

-Dennis Sanchez

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Rewards of Persistence

We painted the wall once.
They tagged it.

We painted it a second time.
They tagged it again.

This week, we’ll be painting it for a third time.
If they tag it again, we’ll be back for a fourth time. (See pictures here. Click on the photos for captions.)

While some people might see this as an endless game of cat and mouse, we at Bronx Community Solutions see the positive side: the first time our Tag Team Graffiti Cleanup Unit painted the side of this Chinese restaurant, located across the street from a school in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, the tag was an immense canvas of bubble letters that ballooned across the entire wall.

The second time we had to paint, we saw that the artists had been a little less ambitious: there were some scattered silver scribbles that peppered the length of the wall. This time when we go back to paint, we’ll be painting over a two isolated tags. (Click here for pictures.)

We think that the artists are getting a little tired of us. And that is the point.

Graffiti thrives on two factors: visibility and ubiquity. "Taggers," who are mostly young males, seek attention from other artists and from the general public. Keep going after the graffiti and eventually they'll get discouraged.

It is a lesson learned from the Clean Train Movement in the late 1980s in New York City. Fed up with the fact that the majority of their trains were covered in graffiti, the Metropolitan Transit Authority took whole fleets of trains out of service until the graffiti was removed.

In addition to cleaning the trains, the MTA also starved taggers of the attention that they desired. Graffiti artists became frustrated that their artworks were destroyed so quickly and they tired of putting up tags that they knew would shortly be removed by the MTA. This approach stemmed the problem and resulted in a cleaner and mostly graffiti-free subway system.

A bigger problem, however, is changing the environment where graffiti occurs. The sheer amount of it in the Bronx’s urban surroundings has numbed residents to its presence and has made it harder to engage communities in the process of removal. The obvious sentiment is, “They’re just going to tag over whatever you clean up.”

One woman summed up that sentiment on a recent cleanup project. “You know you’re just wasting your time," she told our crew supervisor. "I swear to God, my son’s just gonna be back out there tonight painting right over it. He’s the one who does it and I can guarantee that it’s gonna be tagged up again in no time!”

Her statement contained a depressing kernel of reality: this Bronx mother feels so powerless to keep her neighborhood buildings free of the graffiti that brings down property values and costs city agencies thousands of dollars a year to clean up, that she believes herself unable to control even her own son’s role in the problem.

It also speaks to a larger, but connected problem: a missing connection between the boy and a youth program that might give him the attention he is seeking in a more constructive way.

Unlike a subway car, we cannot take a neighborhood "out of service." Our goal is to make modest progress toward changing an environment or culture where graffiti is taken for granted. It is a slow process and it happens in little steps. Over time, we hope that neighborhood residents reach the same point as our crew members, who tell us, “I really hope that this wall doesn’t get tagged again.”

Bronx Community Solutions is committed to that gradual process of improvement, however long it takes – or however many re-paintings it takes.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Making an Impact

Theresa (not her real name) came to a realization: “I didn’t want to be broke with no job, no GED and living with my moms.”

What had brought her to this point was her habit of smoking marijuana regularly, and even selling it. Theresa used to think of this as a victimless crime, but at Bronx Community Solution's first community impact panel (for pictures, click here) it became clear that seemingly victimless crimes can severely effect a person's life.

The community impact panel - an idea borrowed from the Midtown Community Court - brought together community stakeholders and young people who had been charged with marijuana offenses, allowing an honest and free-flowing exchange about how these offenses can affect the community.

Melanie, a police officer, said to one of the youth participants, “You see me sitting here and you might just see the uniform, but I am also a person who cares about you and about our community.” The community members — Melanie, a police officer; Pattie, who works for a substance abuse agency; Ruben, a leader in a human service agency, and Inga; a peer counselor for a youth program - shared stories from their professional perspectives and from their personal lives.

Sixteen-year-old Daquan, who is truant from school and not living with his mother, said “I don’t smoke weed, I sell it.” Daquan sees selling marijuana as his only career option. Inga, Ruben, Pattie and Melanie, all speaking directly with Daquan, helped him realize that there are other choices for him. He saw that he was in a room with people who could connect him to services that he did not even know existed.

Luis, 17, does not see that smoking marijuana is such a big deal, but his eyes widened when Pattie talked about her brother, a young drug user who committed suicide.

As an employment specialist from FEGS Health and Human Services System, a Bronx Community Solutions partner, I moderated the panel along with Resource Coordinator Elizabeth Taylor.

We started the group because we felt the usual punishments for marijuana offenses (typically a time served sentence or a few days jail) do not go far enough in helping a young person understand why their criminal behavior is not only self-destructive but also damaging to the community. The underlying issues (such as stress about jobs or school, dependency on the chemicals in the marijuana itself, and self-medication for underlying mental health issues) are not addressed and the young person may not learn anything except that they were unlucky enough to get caught.

By contrast, the participants in our panel opened up about some of the reasons they're using marijuana: peer pressure, lack of role models and the need to numb feelings that they don't want to talk about were cited in the group. By the end of the session, three out of the four panel members said they were interested in pursuing the voluntary services (such as a job referral) that we offer.

Going forward, community impact panels will be a big part of what Bronx Community Solutions offers the Bronx community. Along with the youth basketball league, it's also part of our effort to provide specific services to a population of younger adults.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Making the Basket

"I want something better to do than chillin' on the block" John (not his real name) told the group.

It was the second meeting of the Bronx Community Solutions basketball league, a program for young people aged 16 to 24 who have completed a program mandate with us, along with other at-risk young people. (Click here for pictures.)

Pretty soon, these young people would be hitting the basketball floor, but first we brought them together to hear what they were hoping to get out of the program.

About 40 percent of Bronx Community Solutions participants are between the ages of 16 and 24. Like all our participants, they lead complicated lives, but they can be a hard group to engage in voluntary services.

That's why I thought of the idea of a basketball league for program graduates and other young people. Basketball gets them in the door, but we also take the opportunity to offer them services. And it's clear that they need the help. Last night, five of the young men walked away with job referrals and seven of them registered for after school activities with SCAN Mullaly Academy, our partner in this endeavor. One of these young men, who had been evicted from his apartment last week, even received housing placement in a transitional living community.

After a couple of practices, the team will be playing against teams from the Departments of Corrections, Probation, and Parole; the New York Police Department; a team from the Police Athletic League; FEGS (Federation Employment and Guidance Services); and other after school teams in the Bronx.

Our goal is to bring young people and representatives of criminal justice agencies together in a positive way. In the process, we hope they'll start to see each other from a different perspective - as friendly competitors and even teammates, instead of antagonists.

Captain Muhammad, from the Department of Corrections, stopped by last night to watch the game and to show his support for bridging the gap between the court and the community. He is prepared to "give the young guys a good game" and it is clear that he means business.

Although last night’s game was just a scrimmage, it was an important step for court-community relations: disconnected youth were reconnected to the support structures that will help them bring their A game to whatever positive opportunities await them in the future.

(For a slide show from the event, please click here.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Changing the Courts in the UK

One year after opening pilot community justice centers in North Liverpool and Salford, Lord Chancellor Falconer (essentially the UK's chief court administrator) announced that ten new courts will be opened across England and Wales, and other jurisdictions encouraged to adopt this new approach.

The ultimate goal: "to see community courts in every part of England and Wales in the next two years," according to Lord Falconer.

The ten court projects are slated for Birmingham, Bradford, Devon and Cornwall, Hull, Leicestershire, Merthyr Tydfill, Middlesbrough, Nottingham and London. Planners will be spending the next few months meeting with community residents to learn about their concerns.

Lord Falconer's announcement shows not only the increasingly international appeal of the community court model, but the powerful role that national leaders can play in advancing the movement.

I'm hopeful that community courts in the UK will serve as a laboratory of innovation, providing ideas and new approaches that can be adopted in the Bronx. For example, based on the example of the Salford Community Court, we're looking at creating a "Judge For Yourself" event, in which citizens meet with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and discuss how the court responds to real-life low-level criminal cases.

We'll be following the UK's experience over the next months to see how our partners are doing across the Atlantic!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Steps



Today, the Bronx Community Solutions community service crew took a broom, shovel and rake to the first of what will be many step streets throughout the Bronx.

Pedestrians traveling on 176th Street at Jerome Avenue, on Clifford Place at Jerome Avenue, and on Davidson Avenue at Featherbed Lane should see a noticeable difference. Old car doors from nearby chop shops have been removed, planter boxes filled with bottles and chip wrappers have been thoroughly cleaned, and piles of slippery fall leaves on step slopes have been raked into bags. And the whole thing will be cleaned again in two weeks.

Located in Community District 5, the three sites cleaned today were identified by Community Board 5 and by the Department of Sanitation as locations in need of some serious attention. In addition to trash buildup, the areas are home to walls covered in graffiti and the heavy foot traffic of subway riders.

Although the Department of Sanitation makes an effort to clean the steps as often as they can, they simply do not have the resources to be out on the steps on a consistent basis. This is where Bronx Community Solutions comes in – through our community service mandates, Bronx Community Solutions has a steady stream of labor and a desire to respond to the stated needs of different Bronx neighborhoods. So we’ll be back every other Tuesday now to make sure that these steps stay clean and safe.


And this is only the first phase of the cleanup – our goal is to work with community residents, local businesses, and community-based organizations to remove the graffiti, make sure the lights are working, and put flowers and plants in the planter boxes that are usually home to trash. Today was definitely a successful start to the project and we’re looking forward to the work ahead!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Before and After: Bronx Zoo Service Day



On a nice autumn day, I decided to revisit the Red Hook Public Safety Corps Bronx Zoo Service site.

As I walked to the underpass, my mind went back to my first observations of the mural, when Bronx Community Solutions decided to take on this endeavor and the mural was in dire need of repair.



I was uncertain if we would be able to totally restore this mural - Boy was I wrong! As soon as I reached the outer point of the mural, immediately, I was amazed at the transformation of the mural.

From the service project to Crash's detail work, the mural was restored plus!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Building Collective Efficacy

"How do we make sure that the neighborhood stays clean?" asked Joe Muroff from the Bronx District Attorney's Office at last Monday's meeting of the community advisory board.

We had been talking about some of Bronx Community Solutions latest initiatives, including graffiti removal, the mural project at the Bronx Zoo, a step streets project and our ongoing community service work around the Bronx courthouse.

These projects are part of our agenda to make community service more meaningful and visible to the Bronx, and it's already paid dividends: enthusiastic feedback from community-based organizations that have hosted our community service crews, as well as great publicity for the project.

Joe's point was a good one, however: while Bronx Community Solutions could paint over graffiti, clean up a step street or pick up trash in a gritty neighborhood, the project wouldn't have much lasting impact if the graffiti, and the trash, returned.

For a neighborhood to turn a corner, and transform itself from an attractive nuisance to a safe, clean space that feels safe to walk around at night, takes more than a single clean-up project. The hard work is leaving behind the capacity to keep the space clean.

It's what social scientists call "collective efficacy" - a measure of neighbors' ability to keep their own community safe, clean and attractive. (Thanks to anonymous for posting a link to an article on collective efficacy in a previous post). The basic idea is the more collective efficacy a neighborhood has, the safer it will be.

There's a long, and sometimes contentious, debate about whether criminal justice agencies help build collective efficacy or depress it by aggressively policing quality-of-life crime. Wherever you stand on the issue, it seems clear that an enforcement-only strategy probably won't work, nor will isolated community self-help efforts that don't tap into governmental resources.

That's the challenge we face - encouraging residents and community-based organizations to take up where our community service crews leave off, through initiatives like "Adopt a Step Street" or by recruiting community-based organizations to sponsor community service projects like cleaning an empty lot that's about to transformed into a community center.

I'm also optimistic about the power of publicity. I've been struck by how cynical most average citizens are about mandated community service. Too many people see it as the urban equivalent of breaking rocks by the side of the highway - make-work that has little community impact and is purposely humiliating.

If we can show, by contrast, that community service can be meaningful and dignified, and tied to ongoing community efforts to reclaim a park or street corner, I think we'll have gone a long way to changing perceptions, both of the court system and neighborhoods where the work itself takes place.

That's where the community advisory board plays an important role - in focusing our community service efforts on neighborhoods that need it the most, identifying community-based organizations who can serve as our partners and helping to publicize our efforts.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

From Eyesore to Attraction: Improving Step Streets in the Bronx



“My family has been in this area for over 75 years. I remember when these step streets were safe and looked good. Now, nobody would actually choose to take the steps, even if it would save them time. If you take those steps, you’re putting yourself in the presence of danger.”

This is what Richard, a longtime resident of the Bronx and a self-described community historian of the Concourse Village area, had to say when asked about the step streets in his neighborhood. “The structure is falling apart, literally. The stairs are broken and hollow, so if you aren’t watching where you’re walking, you’re a goner. And don’t even get me started on the rats that come out when it rains!”

Anybody who has visited the Bronx knows that it is a hilly borough. It was for this reason, in the early 1900s, that city planners decided to pepper these hills with sets of stairs that would help residents get from bottom to top without having to wind all the way around the hill on roads that were just being laid down.

Called “step streets,” these sets of stairs made a lot of sense, since the automobile was still a rare commodity and most people traveled on foot throughout their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, what was originally intended to improve a Bronx resident’s daily commute has now become a daily risk. Many step streets have fallen into structural disrepair and community members consider them to be dirty and dangerous places that they choose to avoid rather than travel through.

At our summer Community Advisory Board meeting, step streets came up as an issue of concern and an area around which Bronx Community Solutions could do some creative problem solving. Since that meeting, we have taken a much closer look at step streets with the Bronx Borough President’s Office.

We chose Community District 4 as our starting point for this project, since it is a district that has reported particular difficulties with step streets and because of the number of them (about 15 in all) in the area. After taking photos of the sites and gathering some cursory information from residents, we decided to dig deeper into some of the issues we had heard about: safety, cleanliness, lighting, greenery, and crime.

Last Friday, the Red Hook Public Safety Corps (which was also hard at work at the Bronx Zoo) collected about 120 surveys from residents and people who work in the areas we had identified. As we suspected, there was an overwhelming desire among respondents for more police patrols along the step streets, improved lighting, regular maintenance, security cameras, and structural repairs.

Perhaps most interesting is that residents responded strongly to the fact that the step streets’ unclean physical appearance gives the impression of danger. Although respondents spoke at length about what they thought occurred in these areas (specifically at night), not many had personal anecdotes to offer.

This suggests that the physical disorder of the step streets may lead to the perception of disorder and danger, even if this is not entirely the case. In other words, a typical pedestrian may say to himself, “This route looks pretty bad, so it must be dangerous. I think I’ll take the long way home.”

As they say, perception is reality.

Another factor fueling negative perceptions of step streets is their isolation: a person walking up the middle of the stairs might be a good 40 or 50 feet from the street. Some of the steps also open into larger areas on the sides around the midpoint of the stairs, and since there are no mirrors, a passerby cannot see if someone is waiting in those areas.

What are our next steps?

Our Americorps fellows passed along a number of good suggestions from community members for improving the steps and we at Bronx Community Solutions also have a couple of ideas of our own.

First, we could participate in basic maintenance and repair by sending our community service crews to clean the step streets on a regular basis. In collaboration with the Bronx Borough President’s Office, we could also contact city agencies to make sure that busted light bulbs are replaced regularly, that necessary structural repairs are made, and that there is clear signage about who to call when repairs are needed. Where possible, it would be great to install security cameras and other technology and to discuss the possibility of more police patrols around the step streets.

How can we keep it attractive once these improvements have been made?

An “Adopt-A-Step-Street” program is one idea. Similar to the “adopt-a-highway” programs in many suburban areas, this program would bring community stakeholders together to take control of their step street. This group of lookouts would maintain the steps and collaborate with city agencies to make sure that necessary repairs are made.

Going beyond simply cleaning the step streets, the adopting groups would also help take ownership of addressing residents’ perceptions of danger by making the step streets destinations for community residents and local businesses. Perhaps these groups could host public events that allow residents to celebrate their communities or that provide the opportunity for interaction between local elected officials and their constituents. Concerts on the steps, health fairs, greening projects … anything is possible when willing people have the resources and support they need.

Monday, October 16, 2006

At the Bronx Zoo



"How does my giraffe look?"

It was a cool, crisp Friday morning, and the Red Hook Public Safety Corps - full time, stipended AmeriCorps volunteers who work at Bronx Community Solutions and other projects run by the Center for Court Innovation - were intently working to restore a 13-year old mural at the Bronx Zoo.

The mural, painted by John “Crash” Matos, a Bronx native and internationally known artist, had fallen into disrepair. The mural was heavily damaged by water, which was followed by graffiti “tags” that defaced the mural.



The request to paint the mural had come out of a meeting organized by the New York City Police Department, where we had been invited to describe our graffiti removal initiative. Charles Vassar, Director of Community Affairs of the Wildlife Conservation Society (which runs the Bronx Zoo) had asked if we could help him out.

Two weeks later, we were hard at work, re-painting animals, painting over graffiti and scraping off water damaged paint - all at Crash’s Direction, who returned the following Monday for detail work.



We'll post pictures when the project is finished. In the meantime, it was a good day's work.



Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Graffiti Removal Continues!



This week, the Bronx Community Solutions community service crew continued its graffiti removal efforts in the 48th Precinct, working with Community Affairs Officers DiGiovanna to repaint two business in the East Tremont neighborhood that had been tagged by graffiti.

This is how Brothers Roofing and Siding Supplies looked before the crew started its work:



And here's how Washington Plumbing Specialties Co. looked, before:



and after:



Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Graffiti Removal


Yesterday, Bronx Community Solutions made another step forward in our efforts to expand and develop meaningful community service projects, sponsoring a graffiti removal project with the 44th Precinct at the New Friendly Day Care Center.

A group of eight Bronx Community Solutions participants put a new coat of red paint on the side of the building.

This is the first of many graffiti removal projects we will be working on in partnership with the New York Police Department's Community Affairs unit in the Bronx. At the 44th Precinct, it was Community Affairs Officer Lonesome, Detective Wattley and Youth Officer Hernandez who identified the site, which had been badly disfigured by graffiti.



A few hours of work by our community service crew made a world of difference.



There's a lot more work to be done - each precinct has at least two sites for us to work on. With our new 15-passenger van, purchased to help make our community service projects more mobile and responsive to local neighborhood needs, we expect to be busy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Good Thinking


The New York Times (registration required) reports today that the Bloomberg administration plans to offer $24 million in cash incentives to encourage poor New Yorkers to take positive steps like staying in school and enrolling in parenting classes. The cash payments would range anywhere from $50 to $1,500.

There's a lot to recommend in this approach. For one thing, it recognizes the importance of incentives in motivating behavior -- an issue that we've grappled with at Bronx Community Solutions. For example, we recently learned that over half of participants who accept a voluntary referral to a job training program don't show up for their appointment. For them, a small amount of cash might be enough to make the difference. Second, the approach itself is targeted, measurable and achievable. It's a far cry from articulating sweeping and unrealistic goals, which may be rhetorically satisfying but rarely leads to concrete action.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Meaning of a Voluntary Referral

"I got the job!" said Willie Smith (not his real name) to Saudi Encarnacion, his Bronx Community Solutions case manager.

It was good news: Willie, who had lost his job after his arrest (and was worried about supporting his young son and pregnant wife), had approached Saudi after he finished his court mandate of two days social service. Saudi had arranged for Willie to meet with a job developer at Urban Youth Alliance, one of our partner agencies, who found him work right away.

Helping our clients find a job, get into drug treatment or obtain a GED after they complete their court mandate is one of the most important goals of Bronx Community Solutions. We see not only as an incentive to comply with a court order (which helps contribute to our 70 percent compliance rate), but as an opportunity to get individuals back on track after an arrest.

This type of voluntary engagement is particularly important for us, because the average Bronx Community Solutions sentence is four days. That's hardly enough time to tackle problems like drug addiction or chronic unemployment - precisely the issues that bring people back into court again and again. To make real progress, we need participants to seek services on their own.

As of June 30, 2006, we've made close to 900 voluntary referrals, including over 500 to employment programs and about 200 to drug treatment. While these are good results, we still have a lot to learn about improving the voluntary engagement process. Unfortunately for us, we haven't found much information to help guide us about best practices and results we can expect to achieve.

For example, we've heard “back of the envelope” estimates from experienced practitioners that only about five percent of offenders will seek out additional services, a good reminder of how important it to be realistic in this business. But it's not clear what it would take to move that number to eight or ten percent - or whether that's even possible.

Even the definition of a "voluntary referral" is unclear. For some, a voluntary referral might consist of simply handing a brochure or business card to someone who asks for help, without taking into account whether the person makes anything of the information (or even if there's someone on the other end of the line to answer the phone). While this kind of service can be helpful at times, we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard - a referral should mean more than just handing out a flyer.

Finally, there's the question of long-term impacts - whether referrals the one that helped Willie get a job help him stay on the straight and narrow.

Recently, however, we’ve started to take a closer look at our voluntary referrals to help us at least begin grappling with these questions. With the help of Judah Zuger, a FEGS employee who’s been posted at Bronx Community Solutions, we took a look at a months’ worth (from July 2006) of voluntary employment referrals — 103 in all — to see what could learn about the meaning of a voluntary referral.

What Judah found was encouraging, but suggested that there's a lot of room for improvement. The good news was that a quarter of our referred individuals received some kind of job interview in the month since they completed their Bronx Community Solutions mandate, and of those interviewed, close to half (like Willie) found a job. Since it’s only been a few weeks since their interviews, we may even hear some more good news in the next week or so.

On the other hand, about 60 percent of participants who received a referral never showed up for their initial appointment, a big drop off. (Another sign of the need to be realistic about our work). Those who we were able to contact for follow-up interviews gave a variety of reasons for missing their appointment, including trouble finding child care, competing appointments with a welfare agency, difficulty finding the location and oversleeping (not the greatest excuse).

The evidence seems to suggest that if an individual makes their initial appointment, they have a pretty good shot at getting a job. Obviously, there's no way we'll be able to get everyone to their first appointment (we won't be buying any alarm clocks, for example), but what's clear is that we have to pay attention to the issues that keep people from showing up. The research also bolsters the case for having more on-site services that are easier for our participants to access.

This represents a start, at least, to unpacking the meaning of a voluntary referral.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Red Hook and Quality-of-Life Crime

An interesting article in today's New York Times (registration required) discusses the Red Hook Community Justice Center's attempts to address quality-of-life crime, including drinking in public, public urination and playing loud music.

Here, as in many other areas, we're hoping to draw inspiration from Red Hook: we plan to introduce quality-of-life groups for certain low-level offenses later this year.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Summer School

“At first my experience with law enforcement was negative. I thought they were just picking on us kids, but now I have a better understanding of the role that everyone plays.”

That was what one student at Evander Childs High School said during her participation in a summer program conducted in partnership between Evander Childs and Bronx Community Solutions.

The project's immediate goal was to provide students with the structure, support and extra school credits they needed to graduate on-time. But we had another goal in mind as well: seeking to include the views of young people in the debate about criminal justice, particularly on issues that directly affect young people.

It’s based on the Youth Justice Board, a project of the Center for Court Innovation that trains New York City high school students to research and investigate issues related to criminal justice and public safety that are of particular concern to young people, then work to include a credible youth voice in policy making on those issues. At Evander Childs, the students focused on examining the Criminal Court and Family Court systems, their response to youthful offenders and the impact of those responses on the community, youth and their families.

Students used a fact-finding, hands-on approach. They conducted site visits to courthouses, interviewed judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors and hosted guest speakers.

Often when speaking to court personnel, the students were surprised to find out that they had more in common than they expected. When the students heard from a judge who himself grew up in the Bronx, attended local schools, and shared the same challenges and experiences that the students themselves faced, it changed their perspective in a big way.

“It’s clear that the students acquired an appreciation for the work performed by those who toil in the courts. On the court side it was clear that the judges and other court personnel were excited to have the chance to see kids in a different context, one where the focus was on education rather than litigation,” said Alfred Siegel, the Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation.

Many of the students said that the program had changed how they thought of themselves as students. They said they felt they had matured over the past six weeks, and learned how to interact with adults in a new and positive way. When asked what they would share with other teens from their experience, one student said; “I would talk to them about how actions have consequences, and that teens should know what those are before doing something stupid.” This lesson led the members of the program to recommend an enhanced preventative youth justice component for the curriculum of New York City High School students.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

National Night Out

This past Tuesday night, Bronx Community Solutions staff participated in National Night Out along with millions of people in communities across the country. The event has been taking place for over 20 years and it's probably the largest, most well established community event designed to bring together residents and the criminal justice system to improve safety and prevent crime.



It's a big event in the Bronx and our organization participated in activities at Mullaly Park. New York is sweltering through a heat wave, but Bronx residents know how to stay cool in the summer.



We had the chance to speak to dozens of community members and spread the word about our project. We listened to people's concerns and distributed information that was accessible and easy to understand. We also had the chance to talk with and get to know folks from other agencies: community affairs and crime prevention officers from the NYPD, employees of the Bronx District Attorney, the local Department of Probation, outreach workers from Bronx Lebanon Hospital and others. We even got a visit at our table from Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who has been a supporter of Bronx Community Solutions from its earliest planning stages.



Most importantly, getting outside of the courthouse and into the community, spending an evening in a local park talking to residents was fun! We would love for everyone in the court house to view this type of activity as part of their work.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

International Justice


In the last few years, community courts have been launched in South Africa (13 in all), the United Kingdom and Australia, while practitioners in Sweden, Scotland, the Netherlands and Canada are pursuing their own criminal justice reform efforts, writes Robert Wolf of the Center for Court Innovation in the latest issue of Crime and Justice International.

It's part of a growing trend: court innovation spreading worldwide in an attempt to address public frustration with the justice's system's response to low-level crime, jail overcrowding and a lack of confidence in community-based alternative sentences.

The Center for Court Innovation has played an important role in this movement, hosting visits to New York (over 1,000 practitioners from 51 countries have visited projects like the Red Hook Community Justice Center in the last three years), writing articles and providing technical assistance to jurisdictions interested in pursuing their own projects.

You can read the article here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tackling 'Cozy Corners'


"What can we do about 'cozy corners' - areas where drugs are sold, people hang out all day and residents don't feel safe when they walk home at night?" asked Soundview resident Geraldine Eggleston-Hopper at the Bronx Community Solutions advisory board meeting.

It's a different agenda for the court system: attempting to tackle conditions of disorder that are often the biggest compliants of community members, in addition to focusing on individual cases.

Last night's community advisory board meeting was attended by over 20 local residents, members of the faith-based and business community, police officers, attorneys and representatives of local community-based organzations as well as government agencies. The group was remarkably diverse, bringing people together from all walks of life in the Bronx, as well as a prosecutor from Stockholm, Sweden interested in learning about community engagement strategies.

At the board's request, we came to the second meeting prepared: we mapped the home addresses of 1,000 Bronx Community Solutions participants, looking for neighborhoods such as Soundview hit hardest by low-level crime. (While not perfect, home addresses are a good proxy for high-crime areas, because most crime is committed locally.)

We then asked the board to talk about the issues faced in these neighborhoods, as well as discuss how the advisory board could respond. The idea is to start small, creating "safe spaces" one street corner or park at a time, and eventually work our way across the Bronx.

Ideas included turning an abandoned property into a small business run by Bronx Community Solutions graduates, cleaning and maintaining step streets (built to help pedestrains get up steep hills, step streets are often dangerous and poorly mantained) with local groups, and identifying and supporting grassroots community-based organizations that do excellent work but are often unnoticed.

We're going to act immediately on the step streets idea, working with the Bronx Borough President's office to identify step streets in our high-crime neighborhoods. The idea would be to send our community service crews out to clean these streets, in partnership with a community-based organization who would be responsible for ongoing maintenance.

We also plan to expand our public education efforts, borrowing the "judge for yourself" concept developed by a community court in Salford, England, in which citizens meet with judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and discuss how the court responds to real-life low-level criminal cases.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Thirty Minutes

"Why are you here?"

"Oh man, it was stupid - I jumped the turnstile at the subway, and there was a cop right there. I'm 19 years old and have been in foster care since I was 11. Now I'm living in a group home. I'm not in school and the last grade I finished was 8th grade. I had a job at Kmart, but I lost it. The judge gave me one day of social service and one day of community service."

"I got caught with two bags of marijuana. I use pot to deal with my seizures, which I got from a bad car accident, and my depression. I can't work anymore, and I'm alone when I'm not with my son, who I take care of every other week. The judge gave me a break - he said if I finish three days of social service and stay out of trouble for a year, the case will be sealed, like it never happened."

"I'm 16, and I got arrested with a bunch of my friends. It was a drug sweep, but I wasn't doing anything. I don't hang out with those friends anymore. I'm supposed to do one day of community service - can I do it on the weekend? I'm in summer school and have class every day."

In just a half hour of conducting intakes, I've dealt with a range of issues - everything from foster care to mental health, drug abuse to school dropouts. The complexity of their lives and personal stories isn't apparent from the paperwork they bring from court, which is just a string of numbers describing what crime they pled guilty to - in these cases, 165.15 (theft of services, or jumping the turnstile), 221.10 (possession of marijuana) and 140.15 (trespass).

Their stories sometimes have to be coaxed out of them. Once you ask, though, they're eager to tell their side.

The challenge is making something of the limited time they have with Bronx Community Solutions. Though I'm realistic enough to know that not every client will turn their life around in a few days, I'm pretty happy with what I've been able to do with these three. I schedule the 19-year old to a social service class on Monday taught by a representative of FEGS in the hopes that he'll agree to participate in their job training program for 19-21 year olds.

For the father, I catch a lucky break: Charles, a psychiatrist who works for a partner agency, TASC, walks into the intake office after co-teaching a class on mental health with one of our staff members. Charles agrees to see the father for a one-on-one session on Monday.

Finally, I schedule the 16-year old to clean up a park in the neighborhood where he was arrested. At first, he's reluctant - it's on a weekend (the next day, Saturday), and as he notes, "we used to make fun of those people [cleaning the parks]" - but eventually he agrees.

Hopefully it's the start of something positive. For now, though, it's time for another intake.

"Why are you here?"

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On the Radio


Maria and I recently appeared on a Florida radio show, the Criminal Justice Forum, to discuss Bronx Community Solutions.

You can listen to the show here.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Chow

“You couldn’t see inside the vans, because their windows were covered by a heavy wire mesh. Kramer didn’t have to look. Inside those vans would be the usual job lots of blacks and Latins, plus . . some stray who had the miserable luck to pick the Bronx to get in trouble in. 'The chow,' Kramer said to himself. The Bronx crumbled and decayed a little more, and a little more blood dried in the cracks… Only one thing was accomplished. The system was fed, and those vans brought in the chow.”

Tom Wolfe wrote this passage in his 1987 bestseller Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s juxtaposition of the thrusting money markets of Wall Street with his sharp observations of the desperation of the Bronx Criminal Courthouse are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Wolfe explores the court with well observed wit, anger and fascination through the eyes of dispirited Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer. A former journalist, Wolfe took great time investigating the world of the court, spending many hours observing court procedure and practice.

Because of the author’s detailed investigative work, the novel produced many wry smiles of recognition for me. Wolfe’s accuracy in describing the atmosphere of the court process is impressive: not so much his descriptions of the physical environment but of the cultural atmosphere - the embedded cynicism of court players that nothing they do matters a damn.

Cynicism is the common language of the court, shared by everyone from prosecutors to defense attorneys, judges to property clerks. In my experience, this world weariness does not represent abandoned hope or ideals but acts as a shield against the realities of the day-to-day grind of working in a large, impersonal bureaucracy.

Wolfe's passage serves as a reminder of our goal at Bronx Community Solutions: to apply a kind of practical idealism to our work that takes into account the realities of the Bronx while showing that the court can make a positive contribution to the community.

Two passages struck me most. In a vivid account of the arrest, detention and arraignment of Sherman McCoy, Wolfe skillfully if luridly describes the dehumanizing process of finger printing, metal detection and being held in the court holding cell that accompanies the suspicion of criminal guilt in the Bronx. McCoy’s descent into this purgatory strips him of the advantages he has accrued since birth and the novel’s denouement in court exposes the completeness of that fall. It's a grisly procedure has not become anymore pleasant in recent times.

In the second passage, Wolfe cleverly describes the obstinate, masculine loyalty of the defendants, strutting into court in their oversized sneakers and black jackets effecting their Pimp Roll, in the na├»ve belief that their machismo will save them. Kramer labels these defendants ‘the chow’. He describes lucidly how defendants enter the courtroom “full of juice . . ready to defend the honor and… hides of their buddies against the System. But soon a stupefying tide of tedium and confusion rolled over them all”.

This sense of bewilderment and subdued anger at the process is an issue we face every day. At Bronx Community Solutions, it is our job to handle the confusion felt by many of our clients, in large part because of the emerging evidence that individuals who believe they are being treated fairly are more likely to comply with court orders.

Wolfe’s New York is horribly divided by race and class, boiling with anger that destroys the main characters in the book. For my part, as an outsider, I perceive a city more at ease with itself than that Wolfe illuminates for us. However, the stark images of the Bronx that Wolfe weaves, with its injustices borne by the dispossessed and desperate, while fictionalised, still seems to hold largely true. The book serves as a good starting point for reviewing the challenges the Bronx courts face.

Friday, June 23, 2006

College Drug Courts

"Anyone sitting there?"

Randy Monchick settled into an open seat next to me during lunch on the second day of the drug court conference. Before long, I found myself absorbed in a discussion of his new initiative: an attempt to import the drug court model to college campuses across the country.

It's a nice example of what I would call "problem-solving entrepreneurialism": taking the principles and practices or problem-solving courts and applying them in new settings.

The scale of the drug and alcohol abuse problem is clear, as Randy as his co-facilitator Lisa Miller of Colorado State University pointed out at a workshop session I attended after lunch. There are 1,700 alcohol-related students deaths on college campuses per year, along with 70,000 documented alcohol and drug related sexual assaults. Researchers have found that about 25 percent of college students are frequent binge drinkers, meaning that they regularly have five or more drinks in a two-hour period.

The issue isn't merely that a certain percentage of young adults are (inevitably)experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The issue is environmental: through a mix of permissiveness, peer pressure and a "wink and nod" attitude towards drug and alcohol abuse, college campuses have become laboratories for destructive behavior. As Lisa Miller pointed out, college students abuse drugs and alcohol about twice as often as similarly aged peers not enrolled in school.

Interestingly enough, students regularly over-state the percentage of their peers they believe are abusing drugs and alcohol. Translation: students believe "everyone is doing it," a clear expression of strongly held beliefs about college culture.

Lisa's "Day IV" program, based at Colorado State University, is the first of its kind in the country. Instead of suspending (or kicking out) students who violate the school's code of conduct, they are given a "deferred dismissal" in exchange for following a strict set of program rules, which includes abstinence (enforced through random drug testing) and regular meetings with a team of social workers and a hearing officer. After a minimum of four months participation, the student can be restored to regular status; if they fail to complete the program, they are formally dismissed.

Randy's goal is to export the Day IV approach to college campuses across the country, with support from the Century Council. Two pilot sites (Texas A & M and the University of Nevada) have already been selected, with more on the way.

I asked Lisa and Randy how much impact programs like Day IV can have on a college culture that often pressures students (particularly freshman) to drink. Over time, according to Lisa, she's learned "which fraternities, which academic departments and which residence halls" are having repeated problems. Some of the best sources of information are program graduates, many of whom continue working on a voluntary basis for Day IV. The university can use this information to address problem locations - for example, by threatening to revoke a fraternity's charter unless they agree to major changes.

In my view, it's this type of problem-solving enforcement that offers the most promising approach to the culture problem. To be successful, Day IV and programs like it will have to go beyond addressing individual behavior to addressing an environment that encourages reckless and dangerous behavior. At Colorado State, Day IV has already gotten the attention of the wider student body: Lisa Miller laughably refers to an "I hate Lisa Miller" club on MySpace (a popular internet bulletin board) created by anonymous students.

It's not much different from what we're tying to accomplish at Bronx Community Solutions: addressing behavior that might otherwise be dismissed or minimized, creating a culture of accountability while offering individuals a helping hand.

A final thought: one of the striking things about Day IV is the attempt to apply problem-solving court techniques in a non-court setting. If problem-solving can go to a college campus, where else can it go?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A National Forum

"I like to bill it as part revival, part family reunion and part educational seminar" said Karen Freeman-Wilson, Executive Director of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

Today is the opening day of NADCP's 12th annual drug court conference, and Karen and West Huddleston (who runs the National Drug Court Institute) are taking time out of their busy schedule to talk about the conference.

Over 2,000 individuals are in attendance, along with hundreds of speakers covering such topics as "The ABCs of Drug Courts" to "Using Culture to Strengthen Your Program."

I'm here too, with a specific assignment: to bring ideas back to the Bronx.

It's become almost a cliche to report that drug courts have come of age. The first drug court conference, held in Las Vegas in 1994 at a time when there were fewer than 100 drug courts in operation around the country, attracted about 150 attendees. Today, there are well over 2,000 drug courts and other problem-solving courts in operation around the country - an explosion of judicial creativity.

Walking the halls of the drug court conference can be a remarkable experience. Judges rub shoulders with drug treatment professionals, legal scholars, and recovering addicts. Private companies compete to sell urinalysis kits and home voice monitoring systems. Celebrity guests like Smokey Robinson and Tom Arnold provide evening entertainment.

Beyond the spectacle, however, is a celebration of a shared accomplishment: drug courts have repeatedly demonstrated that courts can in fact change the behavior of offenders and reduce substance abuse.

After over a decade, the drug court conference also offers an opportunity for a sober (excuse the pun) evaluation of the movement's impact. For all their success, drug courts and other problem-solving courts are still not able to reach many cases in need - Karen Freeman Wilson estimates that they are available to five to 10 percent of the eligible population nationwide.

The need is glaring in some areas of the country. "It's an issue when Stillwater, Oklahoma's drug court has as many participants as Los Angeles, California" West Huddleston succinctly puts it.

What would it take for drug courts and other problem-solving courts to reach a larger population? Karen sees the challenge in part as a matter of funding: drug courts benefit state budgets by reducing incarceration, but those cost savings don't always result in investments in drug treatment systems. West sees a related challenge: equipping drug courts to better engage communities and build long-term political and financial support.

We also talked about a conceptual challenge that is at the heart of Bronx Community Solutions: managing the trade-off between maintaining drug courts and other problem-solving courts as stand-alone entities, versus applying a set of core principles and practices on a more systemwide basis. It's a tough balance to strike, because there's a risk of watering down the model so much that it becomes unrecognizable.

The good news is that after over ten years of practice, research into best practices is beginning to drill down to the specific pieces of the drug court model that account for its success. Take judicial interaction, for example: Doug Marlowe from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that regular status hearings with "high risk" offenders provide the biggest bank for the buck, meaning that courts concerned about overburdening court calendars can be more selective in terms of requiring follow-up appearances.

For other issues, it's clear that a careful translation process is required. The stakes are high. Should eligibility standards be expanded to include more than just non-violent offenders? What about individuals arrested on a non-drug charge? Is the "team approach" in which defense attorneys and prosecutors collaborate in a drug court appropriate for a larger system used to an adversarial model? Can every judge be a drug court judge?

Karen and West point to such jurisdictions as Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Hennepin County, Minnesota and San Diego, California as pioneers in this process. I'll be interested in talking to these practitioners, to learn about what they're doing and see how their approaches might be useful for Bronx Community Solutions.

During the drug court conference, I'll be providing live commentary in an effort to capture some of the debate about the future of the drug court and problem-solving court movement. What are your thoughts about the issues and challenges facing the field? To share them, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Making A Difference



"You want me to do what?"

The Bronx Community Solutions community service crew was about to embark on its toughest challenge yet: helping the Mount Hope Housing Corporation haul a dumpster's worth of garbage out of an heavily overgrown, formerly abandoned lot.

In a few weeks the Mount Hope Housing Corporation is breaking ground on a community center that will offer space for youth recreation, computer labs, classrooms, employment and financial literacy programs, gardens and community events. They asked us to prepare the site for the ground breaking ceremony.

While Mount Hope was excited to get our help, we were equally excited to have the opportunity to experiment with a different model of community service. For the first time in the Bronx, we were partnering with a local non-profit to assist in visible and tangible efforts to improve safety and neighborhood quality of life. It's one of our ideas for adapting strategies that have been successful at the Red Hook Community Justice Center to an entire borough.

But to our clients, this was a day of court-ordered community service. They weren't sure what to expect, and mostly they were just hoping to get their mandate done. A typical day of community service is light work: mostly sweeping and picking up litter in public parks, sidewalks, and streets. Today, we would be cleaning a formerly abandoned lot piled high with trash.



Gunnar Frederickson from the Mount Hope Housing Corporation was at the site to meet us, and he took a few minutes to describe the history and mission of the organization and plans for this site. They’ve been working in the neighborhood for over 20 years to develop and manage safe, decent affordable housing, as well as promoting economic development and providing human services.

After bagging a huge amount of trash and hauling it off the site, it was obvious to everyone that we had really accomplished something. Although they'd been skeptical at first, our clients were saying things like, "I'm going to come back a year from now and make sure they finish this project." "This is my neighborhood. I can't believe how much trash people dump here. It doesn't feel right."



Many of the clients who worked the hardest also sought information about job training and job placement programs like Urban Youth Alliance and FEGS and we made sure to escort them to our clinic after the day was over. We’ve learned that clients who show up and take their mandate seriously are often good candidates for these programs.

Rejuvenating neglected and abandoned public space in the Bronx has a special history. In the aftermath of wholesale disinvestment, the Bronx has been rebuilt lot-by-lot and block-by-block, often by small community-based organizations and groups of neighbors. Around us, we saw visible signs of that history. Right across the street was a vibrant community garden (see below picture).




Can the courts have a meaningful role in strengthening and enhancing efforts like these that improve safety and quality of life for neighborhoods and communities? We're interested to find out.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Little Piece of Red Hook

It was just another site visit at the superstore for problem-solving justice, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

I was there on a shopping mission: to bring something back to the Bronx.

Though I work for the same parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, I wasn’t much different than the hundreds of visitors who made their pilgrimage to Red Hook every year. One of the Center's dozen demonstration projects, Red Hook has hosted thousands of visitors from all over the world since opening its doors in 2000.

They come to learn about the unique relationship the Justice Center has with the surrounding southwest Brooklyn neighborhood, as well as the problem-solving techniques Presiding Judge Alex Calabrese applies to criminal, civil and housing court cases.

Anyone who walks in the doors of the Justice Center quickly learns what a different place it is. Court officers tutor kids after they get out of school. Prosecutors and defense attorneys joke about the relative strengths of the summer youth baseball teams they coach in a local park. Residents attend GED classes and community meetings hosted at the Jusice Center in the evenings.

In contrast to the impersonal environment and cynicism often displayed in large urban courthouses, Red Hook feels like an oasis. For example, the Justice Center was awarded the prestigious Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence for its innovative architectural design.

It's an attitude shared by the staff who work at Red Hook. “I felt like I hit the jackpot when I was transferred here,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Masone told me. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” said Lieutenant Robert Vitucci.

While Red Hook is an inspiring place to visit, it can also feel intimidating. It’s natural for a visitor to walk away wondering, “could I do this?”

That’s where Bronx Community Solutions comes in. Our goal is to take the best parts of demonstration projects like Red Hook and see if they can work in a very different environment – a traditional urban courthouse.

Take the value of collaboration. During my visit, I participated in the weekly “list” meeting – in which the judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys and social work staff gather to monitor the progress of defendants mandated to complete a long-term mandate, such as inpatient drug treatment. Over time, court staff get to know clients personally and end up rooting for them to be successful. As ADA Masone put it, “Now I’m looking for opportunities to get better results with defendants.”

During the list meeting, I started to think about ways to adopt the concept to the Bronx. Is it possible, for example, to bring together representatives of the district attorney and defense bar to discuss potential community-based alternatives to incarceration for particular defendants?

The list meeting also helped me understand the importance of some of the less obvious forms of collaboration that I've seen in the Bronx. For example, Steve is an NYPD officer who works in the holding pens where offenders are detained before their arraignment. Several months ago, Steve encouraged a reluctant female defendant to enter an inpatient drug treatment program while she waited to see the judge.

To this day, wherever I see Steve – either in the courthouse or on the street – he still asks about her progress. As Lieutenant Vitucci from Red Hook states, “Most officers do care, I don’t care how busy they are.”

Collaboration is not only evident among the officers in the Bronx. Like Red Hook, prosecutors are concerned with preventing crime, but they realize that jail may not always be the best solution and frequently approach me saying “this guy needs a program.”

The lesson for us is the importance of encouraging court players - such as attorneys, court officers and court clerks - to participate in Bronx Community Solutions. For example, we're thinking of starting a regular pickup basketball game (adapting the idea of Red Hook's summer baseball league) that would include Bronx Community Solutions program graduates as well as people who work in the courts.

Another thing we've learned from Red Hook is how a sense of fairness not only prompts cooperation between court staff, but also a successful outcome for the client. “It feels different here,” one Bronx Community Solutions client told me today as he sat in the intake office and was given a sandwich and juice while being scheduled for his social services.

“Community engagement” was the resounding answer that echoed through Red Hook when I asked for advice on what we should be focusing on in the Bronx.

Red Hook is all about changing perspectives of communities by making them problem-solvers. “Go to their meetings and hear what they have to say” was suggested by James Brodick, the Project Director for the Red Hook Criminal Justice Center. Brodick, Judge Calabrese, court officers and other staff at Red Hook regularly attend community meetings, which sends a powerful message of respect to local residents.

Now the challenge – how can we effectively engage a community with 1.5 million residents? Understanding the importance of community meetings, we have initiated a community advisory board which will be reconvening for the second time next month to identify and target specific problem areas in the community.

It’s intimidating to be compared to our big sister project, but we can learn from Red Hook and take little pieces back to our jurisdictions with us. Cooperation and fairness are immeasurable, but there are clearly pieces of the Red Hook spirit showing in the Bronx.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Grassroots Change in the Bronx

“You guys give us an opportunity to be at the table with the decision makers,” Ruben Austria of Urban Youth Alliance told me over a cup of coffee this morning.

I had asked Ruben what a grassroots, community-based organization like Urban Youth Alliance gets out of a partnership with Bronx Community Solutions.

It’s pretty clear what we get from Urban Youth Alliance: an organization that finds jobs for clients after they finish their Bronx Community Solutions mandate. That’s a win-win for us, because a job is not only a stepping stone to a productive, crime-free life, but a powerful incentive for completing a court mandate.

So far, we’ve sent over 300 clients to Urban Youth Alliance, a number that far exceeds the targets in the small contract we signed with them.

To be successful, Bronx Community Solutions will have to recruit social service providers who can work with thousands of offenders annually. The good news is that in the Bronx, there’s no shortage of community-based agencies.

The more challenging news is that these agencies rarely interact with the courts, particularly small and mid-sized groups – such as churches, block groups and neighborhood associations – that form the backbone of civic life in the Bronx.

It’s easy to see why. For one thing, the offender population is a difficult group to work with. For another, the courts can be a difficult environment to navigate.

Urban Youth Alliance is a good example of an organization determined to get its foot in the courthouse door. Up until 1998, they were a small organization funded largely by church donations. That year, they were approached by Public-Private Ventures, a national non-profit, to serve as a local partner on a youth anti-violence initiative. Urban Youth Alliance used their connections with local churches to create a youth mentoring program called Bronx Connect.

A breakthrough came two years later, after Ruben received a call from a Legal Aid attorney who said he needed a mentor to get his client out of jail. “He told me he found us in the phone book,” Ruben recalled. After Ruben recruited a local churchgoer, the judge agreed to release the offender. "We realized, 'this is what we want to do.'"

To learn more about running an alternative to incarceration program, Ruben spent months sitting in family court, observing cases and asking judges and court clerks what they wanted from a partner program. His work paid off: by the end of 2001, they had 10 referrals. It jumped to 20 referrals in 2002 to 40 the year after.

To win the court’s trust, Ruben lavished attention on his clients. “We used to show up (for court appearances) that we didn’t have to, just to make sure the judges knew who we were.”

Around the same time, Reverend Mike Carrion (who had served as Urban Youth Alliance’s Board Chair) agreed to leave a high-paying job in the private sector to start the Workforce Development Institute. In their first year, they served 1200 clients with a small staff of job developers and no earned income. “Mike’s attitude was ‘if we do the work, God will take care of us’” said Ruben.

Today, Urban Youth Alliance has 14 full-time staff members. With funding from the Department of Labor and the City of New York, along with a steady stream of clients from Bronx Community Solutions, they've greatly increased their capacity - moving "from retail to wholesale" as Ruben put it.

I visited the organization a few months ago, and was impressed by the dedication and commitment of the people who work there. Most of the staff live in the Bronx, and their shared religious commitment helps fuel a passion for helping troubled individuals in the Bronx. Now, their concern is making sure that they hold on to the values that sustained the organization in its earliest days. "We have to make sure we don't lose our character as we get bigger," Ruben told me.

If courts are going to reach beyond purely legal solutions to the problems presented by low-level offending like drug abuse, unemployment, homelessness and mental illness, they're not going to be able to do it alone. Our role at Bronx Community Solutions is to serve as a broker between the courts and organizations like Urban Youth Alliance, and to find ways (such as providing financial assistance and access to court leadership) to support these groups.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Better Information for Judges

"What about a success memo?" suggested Judge Ralph Fabrizio during a lunch meeting on Wednesday.

We had invited Judge Fabrizio to help us understand what information judges need about defendants who appear before them in court.

I was listening intently, because I work in a courtroom where reliable information is absolutely vital: the warrant part, where judges decide whether or not to send individuals who fail to complete Bronx Community Solutions to jail.

In the three months I have spent in the warrant part, I’ve learned how important my physical presence in the courtroom is. With 70,000 annual criminal case filings, and a system that relies on paper files, there’s plenty of opportunity for human error.

My role is to reduce the chances that the court acts on inaccurate or incomplete information. "It’s a terrible thing to put someone in jail who is innocent," says Judge Fabrizio.

Warrants are issued for individuals who fail to complete a community-based mandate or who do not pay a fine. Last September, the Bronx designated a single court part to handle these cases, and because people can come in voluntarily (or involuntarily, by way of the warrant squad) at any time, I have to make sure the information I have is always up to date. I rely on the Justice Center Application, a detailed database that contains information about individuals assigned to our program.

Providing accurate information not only prevents needless errors, but gives the court confidence that the penalties it may impose for non-compliance (such as additional days of Bronx Community Solutions or a short jail sentence) are appropriate. I also make recommendations that may help the court make better decisions, such as changing a community service sentence to social service for an individual who needs help with a drug problem or assistance finding a job. "Before you, we didn’t get that type of involvement" Judge Fabrizio told us.

Of course, there are times when I won’t be physically present when a judge needs information - and not only because I work three days a week (the rest of the time I’m completing my college degree). For example, individuals arrested on a new charge may have an open warrant on their record, and the judge will want to know what happened on their previous case.

That’s why I write a detailed failure memo for every individual who does not complete their Bronx Community Solutions mandate, a memo which gets attached to their court file. With Judge Fabrizio’s help, we’ve learned how to communicate key information (such as the number of times we’ve rescheduled defendants) in an efficient manner.

Finally, I liked Judge Fabrizio’s suggestion of a "success memo" because it speaks to a real need for judges to learn good news as well as bad. Based on his suggestion, we’ll be brainstorming about ways to give successful Bronx Community Solutions participants some positive reinforcement in court, in addition to offering them an opportunity to sit down with our social work staff.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Alternatives to Incarceration

One in 136 Americans were in jail or prison at midyear 2005, including 12 percent of black males aged 25-29, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

However, the number of individuals incarcerated in New York dropped by 2.5 percent, the third largest decrease in the nation.

It would be interesting to find what role, if any, the widespread adoption of drug courts across New York has played in the state's decreased incarceration rate.

Nationwide, individuals awaiting trial or incarcerated for a year or less represented the largest inmate increase from mid-year 2004. The short-term jail population is one we're very interested in, because we see a community-based sanction as a good alternative to a jail sentence of ten days or less (which was meted out in the Bronx over 3,000 times in 2003). We'll know more about our impact on short-term jail sentences in the weeks ahead.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

20 Percent Time

It’s Thursday afternoon and instead of heading inside the courthouse, I’m entering a classroom, taking off my jacket and tie, and rolling up my sleeves. I am preparing to teach a social service class, a big change from my normal courtroom duties reviewing rap sheets and making sentencing recommendations to judges.

Teaching the class is part of my 20 percent time, the one day a week that I spend working on projects not part of my job description. We got the idea from Google, which encourages its engineers to spend one day a week dreaming up new products, like Google News.

Transporting a management practice from sunny Silicon Valley to the rough and tumble of the Bronx courthouse may seem like a strange idea, but it’s become an essential part of how we do business.

We use 20 percent time not only to keep morale high in a busy project that handles close to 1,000 new cases a month, but to improve the work that we do.

When Ramon Semorile, a community service crew supervisor, became concerned that his clients weren't getting the same access to drug treatment and job training as participants with a social service mandate, he approached the clinic staff for training. "I knew what we were doing in [the social service clinic], but I wanted to be able to do it myself," Ramon said.

A native Spanish-speaker, the clinic staff asked Ramon to help design a social service class (one of 16 classes we teach weekly) that would be taught in Spanish. Before long, Ramon was teaching the class on his own. "Someone needs to help those who don't speak English," Ramon said.

The experience of teaching a class helps Ramon feel confident assessing needs and making service referrals to individuals working on his crew. "I can focus more on helping [our clients] understand the services that can help them," he said.

We also use 20 percent time to solve problems that are unique to Bronx Community Solutions. Unlike other problem-solving courts, which focus on a single courtroom and a single judge, our project is designed to be available to the over 40 judges working in the Bronx. With only four resource coordinators, however, we can't reach all those courts, nor can we cover night and weekend arraignments (the court is open sixteen hours a day and seven days a week).

Danielle's solution to the problem of limited staff was to recruit and train project staff in other departments to work part-time as resource coordinators. Now, we have staff working in arraignments every weekday evening and on Saturdays, as well as in other court parts who request our help during normal working hours.

Other Bronx Community Solutions staff members use their 20 percent time to come up with new and innovative ideas. Edwin Williams is a member of the New York City Public Safety Corps, an AmeriCorps public service project that provides him with a small living stipend and college tuition assistance in exchange for a year's full-time work at Bronx Community Solutions.

Edwin uses his 20 percent time to edit and revise the forms used in the intake office, such as client contracts. "When I first looked at the contracts, the text seemed old and hard to understand" he told me. Edwin changed the layout to make the contract clearer and more visually appealing. He also created, and regularly updates, an attendance chart that keeps intake staff from overbooking social service classes and community service crews.

We don't make twenty percent time a requirement for staff, but pretty much everybody wants a project they can call their own. For example, Aubrey spends his 20 percent time writing and editing the blog, and Maria is working with a local high school to create a summer-long criminal justice program (modeled on the Center for Court Innovation's Youth Justice Board) for students who need extra credit to graduate on time.

Are there any other court projects (or non-profit organizations) that use a version of Googles' 20 percent time? If so, I'd love to hear about them.