Inside a Social Service Class

"I was selling cigarettes on the street."

"I got into a fight with my sister."

"The police found weed in my car."

It's Friday afternoon, and the 12 participants in the Bronx Community Solutions social service class are describing the arrest that brought them into our program.

You can see that the participants are interested and engaged in the class. One person who started out slumped in her seat is now sitting up, describing her arrest for loitering. Another young man who had to be reminded to turn off his cell phone has put it away and is talking about being a long-term marijuana user.

"I was on top of the world, but now I've fallen" says an older man when it's his turn to speak. His classmates listen intently as he describes his descent from a stable professional job to drug use and depression.

I've seen this process repeated again and again in the classes I've visited. The participants start out with their arms crossed and their mouths shut, determined to stay that way. But give them an opportunity to tell their story, listen without judgement, and you'll see a transformation. In the right environment, they're willing to own up to their mistakes and ask for help.

"How many of you believe that your behavior and choices had a role to play in your arrest?" Maria (who's teaching the class) asks. Eight hands shoot up. "Big time," one adds.

Maria zones in on one young man who hasn't raised his hand, the one who earlier talked about his marijuana use. He's a harder case - he's convinced he was set up by someone in the neighborhood and that his smoking is not a problem.

"Have any of your friends or family asked you to stop smoking?" Maria asks.

He thinks for a moment. "I've had girlfriends tell me I'm a different person after I smoke," he admits.

"Anyone else?"

"Yeah, my mother."

He's starting to sweat. His pose of cool indifference is beginning to wear a little thin.

"Has smoking weed every day kept you from achieving any of your goals?"

"Well, I haven't got my GED, and I can't find a job without it" he says.

After the class is over, about half of the participants stay to speak with Maria. Three sign up for a job training program. The older man who spoke earlier tells Maria his Medicaid has expired and he needs help replacing his inhaler. He'll go back with Maria to her office, where she'll call her contact with the Department of Health. The young marijuana smoker stops to get some advice on entering a GED program. "When's a good time to see you?" asks another woman, arrested for possessing crack.

That's how we measure success with a social service class - how many people stick around after the class is over to ask for help. We don't know how many will follow up, but it's a start.

It's almost 3:00, and Maria asks the remaining class members to walk out with her. The next class is about to start.


Indefensible said…
I promised to read so here I am:

Can you tell me why, in a community with an unemployment rate like there is in the Bronx we should be arresting someone who was "selling cigarettes on the street." in the first place?

Moreover why is it that such a person need a "program" of any sort particularly one which seeks to assert individual responsibility?

You say that hands shot up when you asked ""How many of you believe that your behavior and choices had a role to play in your arrest?"

Sure--his or her behavior--selling cigs on the street caused him or her to be arrested. But why aren't we asking the larger questions? Questions like why are our criminal justice priorities arresting them rather than big time mob smugglers, or corporate tax evaders who cost us thousands of dollars for every penny the cig seller makes?

The honest answer is that they are sitting in the room because OUR behavior and our choices put them there.
Phil Bowen said…
((I declare an interest in working at BCS 3 days a week).

I understand where 'indefensible' is coming from as there is a genuine question in the Bronx of why some of these offenders are in court at all. I say that partly because one of the observations I have made (since getting to the Bronx from London) between the US and the UK is that the UK police seem much more comfortable with using their discretion to dispose of cases pre-court. Do some of these cases need to come to court in the first place?

The difference in public attitudes to white and blue collar crime and drug taking is clear morally and socially problematic and is part of the dynamic that produces criminal justice systems that punish the less affluent disproportionately. However, I disagree with some of the other arguments the poster puts. The cigarette sellers have to take responsibility for their actions. Yes, so does the mob smuggler and the corporate tax evader and yes perhaps they do not get their comeuppance as often as they should (I say perhaps becuase I don't know the figures on corporate tax evaders/mob smugglers brought to justice). That the cigarette sellers discussed here represent individuals who have had poor equality of opportunity does not excuse them of their actions- what would that say to those individuals who were in comparable situations but who were not prepared to transgress the law even if it were in their own self interest?

And we are, it seems, presented with a policy dilemma: do we try to mollify the effects of the status quo or do we try to wholesale dismantle the current system?

Until such a time as a criminal justice system is built that catches all miscreants, that divides accurately the innocent from the guilty in all cases and until such a time as all those in need receive the support they deserve to prevent them offending, I think social service programs based in and around the courtroom provide a positive step for the criminal justice system and for offenders. I would suggest that it is better for these offenders to come through the court and get advice and help, especially help that allows them access to services that can provide longer term help than for them to receive no such help. I would also suggest it is a more efficent use of our time as policy makers to try to amend the current system than expend energy attempting to pull the entire system up by the roots and starting again. I might be wrong.
Benjamin Smith said…
(I'll disclose that I work for BCS)

I guess I'll admit to having a narrow focus. What's best for our clients? (and the courts, and the community?) In the case of this gentleman, his choices and actions are not working for him - they're leading to being arrested (and in most cases, our clients are making choices that are causing all kinds of problems in their lives in addition to being arrested).

I think it's more useful to give a client the chance to examine their behavior, take responsiblity for their actions and attempt to see if different actions will get them better outcomes.

Even if I think it might be partly true, I think it's a bad idea to imply that society or the courts are responsible for their situation.
raphael said…
Hi there,

I wish that people be accaquainted with the fact that smoking kills. Along with tobacco, there are over 600 chemicals added to cigars and cigarettes.

When a cigar or cigarette is lit,the burning end produces over 4000 toxic substances including 43 that are known to cause cancer. Several of the chemicals that are added to tobacco products are listed as hazardous materials that are so toxic they are not allowed to be disposed of in landfills.

Smokers, please quit smoking right now
Hey Raphael,

Thanks for sharing your information about why quit smoking and how it is injurious to our health.

School of Social Work