Bronx Community Solutions

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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.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Why Fairness Matters

"This is the first time since I was arrested that I've felt treated like a human being," George (his name has been changed) said in a social service class a few months ago.

George's story might help me solve a puzzle about Bronx Community Solutions: why we've been able to increase compliance with community-based sentences by 40 percent.

I was struck by George's comment, and have thought of it often since. George had spent the first hour of the class silently seething, his arms folded and his expression set in a fixed glare. When he finally spoke, he shared his frustrations about the experience of being arrested on a drug possession charge. After spending the night in jail, his defense attorney hurriedly advised him that if he pled guilty, he would not have to spend any more time in jail. His court appearance was a brief burst of incomprehensible legal jargon followed by an assignment to complete three days of Bronx Community Solutions.

George remained silent the entire time. "I told myself that I wasn't going to talk to anyone while I was still in the system," he told the class.

Now George was breaking his own rule. He was still in the system - the court had mandated him to complete the class. But something about the experience of being in the class was different. He wasn't there by choice but when he felt "treated like a human being," he began to open up, talk about his struggles with drug addiction and take an active interest in completing his court order.

Increasing compliance rates is one of Bronx Community Solution's most important goals. We know from the research that in large urban courts, only 50 percent of low-level offenders complete a community-based mandate such as community service, making it the judicial equivalent of flipping a coin.

These low compliance rates can not only undermine judicial confidence in alternative sentences, but can overwhelm the criminal justice system. Non-compliance places a burden on the police, who have to enforce warrants for non-compliance, and the courts, who have to schedule judicial hearings for individuals returned on a warrant.

Compliance is also a good indicator of whether we're accomplishing our other goals, such as ensuring offender accountability or encouraging individuals to access services voluntarily. Nothing gets done if people don't show up in the first place.

So why are compliance rates with court orders typically so low in large urban jurisdictions? Social psychologists, such as Tom Tyler of New York University, argue that this is the wrong question to ask. Instead, they flip the question around, examining what motivates people to obey in the first place. “Compliance with the law cannot be taken for granted,” writes Tyler.

To Tyler, the key element to compliance is legitimacy – whether or not individuals believe that the courts (or the police) are “entitled to be obeyed.” In Tyler’s research, legitimacy is much more important than “fear of punishment,” or the threat that by not complying, an individual will face negative consequences such as a jail sentence.

Central to the idea of legitimacy is fairness: the sense that the courts are treating individuals with dignity and respect, that rules are being applied in a neutral fashion and individuals have the opportunity to add their input when decisions are being made. “People who feel fairly treated,” Tyler writes, “are more willing to accept decisions, even if those decisions are unfavorable, and irrespective of whether they think they will be caught and punished if they do no accept them.”

Translation: people respond in surprising ways when treated fairly.

The idea of fairness informs everything we do at Bronx Community Solutions, starting with little things such as offering participants a glass of water when they enter the intake office. The goal is to set a different tone for participants. As one man told us in an interview last July, “you guys seem to know how to make a person feel a little bit better [when we’ve been] sitting in a bullpen for 24 hours.” (Immediacy, or ensuring that intakes occur the same business day as the court appearance, and that mandates begin as quickly as possible, is also a key factor in increasing compliance rates.)

We’ve also trained our intake specialists to begin their interviews with the question “what just happened to you in court?” to give participant the opportunity to tell their story and to make sure they understand their court mandate. (Legal literacy is very real problem: many of our participants come out of court with only the foggiest notion of what their sentence is.) Our intake specialists also carefully go over participant rights and responsibilities, such as the right to meet with a social worker immediately to discuss an issue such as homelessness or drug addiction.

This respect – and the expectations that go with – is underlined in the social service classes and community service projects that we run. As simple as it sounds, the goal is to listen, to provide consistent information and to offer help when asked. “[You] talk with us on our level,” one participant told us.

In a large part due to these efforts, we've been able to increase compliance rates with Bronx Community Solutions sentences to 70 percent. An additional 10 percent partially complete their mandate.

To be sure, there are limits to what we can accomplish. Unlike the case with George, we won’t always be able to instill a sense of legitimacy with clients who believe they were badly treated in court (or wrongly arrested). And there are some people who will be upset no matter what we do.

The point is that projects like ours can’t waste any opportunities to encourage compliance. The challenge for us is providing a consistent level of individual attention as we grow to close to 1,000 new cases a month, as well as trying, where appropriate, to export the ideas of fairness to the court system as a whole (a challenge taken on by such pioneers as Hennepin County, Minnesota Chief Judge Kevin Burke, who is working to focus court staff on the principles of procedural justice).

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Working with the Defense Bar

“You did a good job consulting with us before you started,” said Aaron Mysliwiec, an attorney at Bronx Defenders, one of two agencies (along with the Legal Aid Society of New York) responsible for representing indigent defendants in the Bronx.

I spoke with Aaron last Friday about how projects like Bronx Community Solutions can learn to work more effectively with the defense bar.

Their support is important, not only because defense attorneys can advise their clients to turn down a plea agreement that includes Bronx Community Solutions, but because they can become important allies in identifying issues, such as a client's long-term drug addiction, that might not otherwise come up in a court setting.

Aaron's basic message: talk to representatives of the defense bar before a project gets off the ground. “We have to be a part of the conversation,” he said.

I first met with Aaron, and his boss, Robin Steinberg, in late 2004 during the planning phase of the project. During our conversation, they told us they weren’t comfortable with Bronx Community Solutions seeking to add questions about drug use and mental illness to the standard pre-court assessment given to every defendant, because of concerns about how the information would be used.

In response, we dropped the idea. “That helped us trust you,” Aaron said. (Instead, we conduct social service assesments in the intake office, where participants report post-sentencing. In certain circumstances, we'll interview defendants before their court appearance, but only with the expressed consent of a defense attorney.)

Problem-solving courts and public defender organizations aren’t always going to see eye to eye. For example, our emphasis on offender accountability will at times set us apart from the defense bar, whose goal is to win for their client the least restrictive court outcome possible. Many public defenders also feel that problem-solving projects are excessively coercive and pressure defendants to plead guilty in exchange for obtaining social services.

My view is that these tensions are healthy and inevitable, and that it's important for projects like ours to meet with the defense bar regularly to discuss these issues. For example, in addition to speaking with Robin and Aaron, we've made annual presentations at Bronx Defenders and Legal Aid that give us a chance to share positive results, answer questions and get ongoing feedback. We've learned, for example, that defense attorneys are concerned about making community service more humane and productive, an important perspective that's informed our thinking on the topic.

Also, unlike other problem-solving courts like drug courts, which emphasize a “team” approach in the courtroom, we haven’t sought to change the adversarial process. With hundreds of defense attorneys in the building, we probably couldn’t change it if we tried. It’s hard to argue, then, that defendants are being offered any less legal protection now that Bronx Community Solutions exists – an important consideration when we’re working with over 10,000 defendants a year.

While we want the defense bar to continue to be zealous advocates for their clients, there are some signs that the traditional model of defense may be changing at places like Bronx Defenders.

I’m impressed by the organization's unique philosophy, as well as the passion, energy and enthusiasm that every member of the staff brings to their work. In addition to the roughly 30 attorneys responsible for providing representation on 12,500 criminal cases annually, Bronx Defenders employs civil attorneys and social workers who help clients with issues beyond the criminal matter, such as fighting an eviction notice or getting into drug treatment. “We approach our clients as people, not just criminal defendants,” said Aaron.

As Aaron said, describing his office's approach, "I can’t guarantee an outcome, but I can guarantee that my client has a lawyer who will listen". The idea of providing immediate help for problems beyond the criminal matter, and treating clients with respect and dignity, sounds very similar to what we're trying to accomplish.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A Judge's Perspective

When Judge Margulis heard about Bronx Community Solutions, he wondered if it would work in a courtroom that hears almost 100 cases a day. “I thought it would slow things down,” he said.

My job, when I started last June as Judge Margulis's first resource coordinator: to convince him that Bronx Community Solutions had something to offer a busy arraignment courtroom.

Almost a year later, the court continues its same daily operations, but with a problem-solving feel. In small but important ways, Judge Margulis says he has changed how he operates. For example, he notes that he is careful to instruct defendants to report immediately to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office, even asking court officers to escort them when a BCS staff member isn’t available. “What I’ve learned is that having defendants report immediately is a major part in having them complete,” he said.

Before court comes up in the morning, I review the daily docket and identify cases that I feel are appropriate for a community-based sanction. Judge Margulis tells me that he has come to rely on these recommendations, and has even begun to offer sentencing alternatives like inpatient drug treatment on his own. “Now I have options that didn’t exist before,” he said. "My choices aren't just 10 days jail or a straight conditional discharge," a sentence which allows offenders to walk out of court without any additional obligations imposed on them.

In a courtroom where over half of misdemeanor offenders plead guilty to their charge, this flexibility gives Judge Margulis some important tools for addressing problems (like drug addiction, homelessness and unemployment) that may have led to an arrest. The goal is to halt the revolving door that brings people back into court again and again. “In a courtroom like this, I feel I am successful if I only see a defendant once" Judge Margulis told me. "Since BCS has started, I don’t see as many people coming back.”

When did Judge Margulis become a supporter of Bronx Community Solutions? An important moment came a few months after I started when Judge Margulis received a letter from a female defendant whom he had sentenced to drug treatment through Bronx Community Solutions. She expressed profound gratitude for getting a chance to turn her life around. “It was very heartwarming to read,” said Judge Margulis, who typically only hears about defendants again if they are re-arrested.

Receiving the letter showed that Bronx Community Solutions could achieve results, and fueled an interest in the services we provide, according to Judge Margulis. Part of my job is to keep him informed of new sentencing alternatives we’ve created, such as a job training program for young people aged 19-21 run by FEGS Health and Human Services. “Thirty years ago, I didn’t think I could get used to legal acronyms like ‘ACD’s’ and ‘DISCONS’,” he said. “Now I tell my wife that I have acronyms like 'FEGS' to learn all over again.”

We've also shown Judge Margulis that we can operate without interrupting the efficient processing of cases. By reviewing the calendar of cases to be heard in the morning and collaborating with prosecutors and defense counsel before the case is called, I don’t slow down the process by conferencing or 2nd calling cases as everything is worked out in advance.

We've learned a lot working with Judge Margulis and the clerks and court officers who are responsible for the efficient operations of the courtroom. Most importantly, we've learned how important it is to listen, to ask for help and to involve people in what we do. For example, before I started, we had several preliminary meetings with Judge Margulis, his clerks and court officers, to get their input and answer any questions they might have.

My daily presence in court has also helped - over time, I've gotten to know the people who work here. (Sharing my family's ”death by chocolate” recipe hasn't hurt, either.) As a result, they've become critical partners in making the project work. For example, the "show-up" rate, or the percentage of people who make it from the coutroom to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office after they're been sentenced to our project, is 97 percent. That's a much higher rate than the 85 percent rate reported at other large urban couthouses, and it's a rate that the court officers (who walk people to our offices when I'm not available) in the courtroom are justifiably proud of.

Last week, Judge Margulis learned that he would be moving to Queens, the county where he was elected, which means we'll be working with a new judge in the arraignment courtroom. Judge Margulis says he's looking forward to linking defendants to social services and community service (such as the Queens Plaza Community Cleanup) in his new courtroom.

My new challenge, in addition to working with Judge Margulis’s successor, is figuring out how to make Bronx Community Solutions available to the over other 40 judges in the Bronx with a small staff of resource coordinators. It is crucial that we expand without sacrificing the personal attention that’s been so important in Judge Margulis' courtroom. As I've seen, getting acquainted can transform a questioning judge into an important supporter.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Engaging the Community

"I think the penalties [for low-level crime] need to be much higher, because otherwise people will keep committing crimes,” said one student from the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice.

“But what would they learn in jail?” her classmate replied. “You can’t keep people there forever. What they need is drug treatment or a job, stuff that can keep them from getting arrested again.”

A healthy debate about the court system’s response to low-level crime was breaking out at Bronx Community Solution’s first community advisory board meeting.

I liked the above exchange, because it shows the complexity of views that many community residents hold about the court system. The truth is that they want the court to do both - to enforce accountability for individuals who break the law, while at the same time offering them a helping hand. It’s a much more complex view than the “soft on crime, hard on crime” clich├ęs that often dominate the debate about the criminal justice system.

For Ruben Austria, a South Bronx resident who works for Urban Youth Alliance (a faith-based employment and training organization that's done great work with our participants), the right way to strike a balance between punishment and help is to "create a sense that individuals are accountable to both the community and the court system" when they receive a Bronx Community Solutions sentence.

That might mean having participants perform community service work in neighborhoods hit hardest by quality-of-life crime, or sit down with local residents to have a respectful dialogue about the impact of so-called "victimless crime" (an idea pioneered at the Midtown Community Court). It would also mean creating job and mentorship opportunities for our clients with local employers, churches and other civic associations.

Monday's community advisory board meeting was the first of an ongoing series, attended by 25 local residents, church leaders, representatives of Bronx-based social service agencies, high school students, a prosecutor, defense attorney and a representative of the Bronx Borough President's Office.

It took place in the mock courtroom of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, an impressive school (created by the non-profit group The Urban Assembly) located around the corner from the Bronx courthouse.

Unlike police departments or prosecutors’ offices, which have staff dedicated to the job of community relations, courts have traditionally held themselves at a reserve from the public. This is in part due to judicial principles of impartiality and fairness - the job of the courts is to enforce and interpret the law, not respond to public opinion. But there’s a price to pay for this separation in terms of public faith and confidence in the justice system, as shown by surveys of public opinion that consistently rate state courts as distant and out of touch with the public.

To be sure, community engagement in the Bronx, with its 1.5 million residents and dozens of distinct communities, presents a major challenge. We'll never achieve the familiarity and small-town feeling of a place like the Red Hook Community Justice Center, where the judge greets residents by name at the local deli, prosecutors and defense attorneys coach youth baseball teams at a nearby park and court officers tutor kids after they get out of school.

Understanding that reality, one strategy is to focus on a single park, street corner or neighborhood at a time that needs help, and over time work in every area of the Bronx. Meisha Ross-Porter, the Principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, called this the "safe space" approach. "The goal is to create positive rituals and routines that keep spaces clean and kept up" said Meisha. I liked Meisha's idea, and at our next community advisory board meeting we'll discuss how to put it into practice.