Tuesday, March 28, 2006
An Introduction to Bronx Community Solutions
"How long do I have to wait - I've been in jail all night!"
"I'm using crack every day - I need some help."
"You want me to start community service right away?"
"If I finish my sentence, will you help me find a job?"
It's a typical morning at Bronx Community Solutions -- our five intake specialists are interviewing misdemeanor offenders who have pled guilty and been sentenced to our program, while a half-dozen individuals wait their turn.
Most of the individuals in our office have come straight from one of the two arraignment courtrooms in the Bronx courthouse after a long night in a holding cell waiting to see a judge. They've been arrested on a variety of low-level offenses - possessing a small amount of drugs (usually marijuana or crack), entering the subway without paying a fare or soliciting for prostitution. They've pled guilty to their crime and been assigned to complete the community service and social service programming offered through our office.
They don't know it yet, but they are participants in an ambitious experiment that began in January 2005 to transform the Bronx Criminal Court's response to low-level criminal offending. Misdemeanor arrests in the Bronx have doubled in the last decade, growing to 70 percent of the courts' total criminal caseload. In 2003, for example, 50,000 of the 70,000 criminal case filings in the Bronx were for misdemeanor crimes. Not surprisingly, the Bronx has struggled to keep pace with the rapid-fire increase in caseload volume, and in particular with the legal, social and human problems that these cases present.
High volume may represent a burden for the judges and attorneys at the Bronx Criminal Court, but for my organization, the Center for Court Innovation, it's an opportunity. For the last 10 years, we've pioneered a different approach to low-level criminal offending. Projects like the Midtown Community Court have shown that with enough imagination and hard work, courts can achieve unexpected results, like using community service as a resource to clean up a neighborhood hit hard by crime or disrupting the prostitution trade in the Times Square neighborhood of Manhattan.
As our demonstration projects blossomed, however, a key question remained: Can a project like the Midtown Community Court that works on a small scale, focusing resources on a particular neighborhood or a particular kind of crime, work on a much larger scale?
That's why we leapt at an invitation from New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman and Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson to bring the Midtown approach to all of the Bronx. The invitation was a welcome one for at several reasons. Willie Sutton once famously said that he robbed banks because that's where the money is. By moving into the Bronx Criminal Court - a centralized courthouse that takes cases from all over the Bronx - we would have the opportunity to test our model with a much larger number of individuals.
In short, the Bronx gave us the perfect opportunity to test our ideas on a larger scale, and in a real-life environment closer the one presented in other urban courthouses across the country. To paraphrase the old song, if we can make it in the Bronx, we can make it anywhere.
Over the next several months, my colleagues and I will attempt to give readers a sense of what it's like to try and get an ambitious project like Bronx Community Solutions off the ground, from the drama of seeking to persuade a lifetime heroin user to enroll voluntarily in long-term treatment to the challenge of convincing judges, attorneys, court clerks and court officers to consider a different approach to their jobs.
At the end of the day, we hope to paint an entertaining and useful picture of what court innovation looks like in a place as busy, complicated, chaotic and important as the Bronx.