Bronx Community Solutions

Search This Blog

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.