Bronx Community Solutions

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Carol's Story

Carol Wilson (her name has been changed to ensure confidentiality) is a good illustration of the adage "simple cases, complicated lives" that often comes to mind when speaking of Bronx Community Solutions participants.

When Carol came to Bronx Community Solutions in July 2005, she had multiple previous convictions for drug possession and petty theft. Her rap sheet ran over 16 pages. None of these charges involved great issues of law or controversy, and in fact, a quick reading of the rap sheet would reveal little more than a cycle of arrests and convictions and a litany of penal codes (155.25 petit larceny, 220.03 criminal possession controlled substance - 7th degree) that tell us little about the circumstances of Carol’s life.

It takes a little more work, and imagination, to read between the lines of Carol’s rap sheet. Her photo shows a woman ravaged by years of drug addiction, during which time she had become homeless and lost custody of her children. At various times, she had been sentenced to a month in jail, long-term probation, community service and an alcohol rehabilitation program. Carol was not a particularly sympathetic individual - three warrants had been issued for her failure to comply with court orders, including her failure to complete a community service sentence in 1998.

Carol’s most recent case (she was arrested for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine) presented the judge with a difficult choice. Obviously, what was bringing Carol back to court again and again was her drug addiction. Based on her past behavior, however, he knew that letting her plead guilty and walk out of court in exchange for her promise to address the addiction was a tough bet. Should he take another chance on Carol?

Judges face this type of difficult choice after day, yet very little in their formal training prepares them for it. The reality is that while judges have a number of people at their disposal to answer questions of law, or criminal procedure, they rarely have anyone in the courtroom to help with the questions that must be going through their minds as they mull over a case like Carol’s.

With Carol, a Bronx Community Solutions staff member assigned to the courtroom had already flagged the case by the time it was heard by the judge. When the case was called, the judge asked the staff member if Bronx Community Solutions would accept Carol. The staff member, prepared to accept the case, recommended that Carol be sentenced to a combination of community service and social service, to total six days. Carol agreed to the offer and entered a plea of guilty.

To help ensure that she wouldn't walk right out of the courtroom and back to the streets, Carol was instructed by the judge to go immediately to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office for scheduling. (Research shows that the more quickly individuals enter and begin a program, they more likely they are to complete it.) Once she arrived, Carol and a member of the staff put together a schedule of classes that included an orientation, health education, and a session on decision-making (along with her community service), to begin the next day.

After the orientation class, Carol approached the instructor and expressed an interest in longer-term drug treatment. Sensing an opportunity, project staff arranged for her to enter a month-long inpatient drug treatment program instead of continuing to attend social service classes. The next day, a van sent by the treatment program picked Carol up. When Carol completed the program, Bronx Community Solutions helped arrange for her to enter additional, longer-term outpatient treatment.

At this point, the time Carol had spent in drug treatment had far exceeded the term of the judicial mandate. A six-day sentence had been leveraged into, first, a month of inpatient treatment, and then, continuing outpatient treatment. From the courts’ perspective, she had long since exhausted the judges initial mandate - her participation at this point was entirely voluntarily, which was explained carefully to Carol.

The story doesn’t end there, however. Soon after starting her outpatient program, Carol contacted Bronx Community Solutions to ask for help. Her current treatment was not working out and she intended to leave immediately. Project staff worked with her to coordinate screening and acceptance into an alternative residential treatment program, as well as additional outpatient drug treatment.

Now, Carol stops by Bronx Community Solutions regularly to chat with project staff and receive additional services, including family counseling for her and her daughter, assistance in obtaining entitlements, and guidance in addressing Family Court issues. To the staff who met Carol after her sentencing, the change she has undergone in just a few short months is miraculous.

We can’t know if Carol’s recovery will be permanent, or if she’ll go back to her drug habit after eight months of sobriety. Nothing makes a realist faster than working in an environment like the Bronx Criminal Court. Still, it’s clear that her time in Bronx Community Solutions has been better spent than the years spinning around the revolving door of drugs, crime and jail. At least for today, I think we can be happy about Carol's story.

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.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Contact Us

Our mailing address is:
Bronx Community Solutions, Room 2-12
215 East 161st Street, Bronx, NY, 10456
We are located in the Bronx Criminal Court on East 161st Street between Sherman and Sheriden, one block from the Grand Concourse, in Rm. 2-12 (Intake and Court Operations) and Rm. M-10 (Clinic).
To reach us by phone:
If you are a Bronx Community Solutions client with a question about your case: Please call (718) 618-2490 during regular business hours to speak to a member of the staff. We cannot respond to voicemail messages. Hours of operations are 9:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

For court partners and the general public:
With inquires on court operations or compliance, please call (718 ) 618-2490
With inquires on social services and resources, please call (718 ) 618-3740.
To partner with Bronx Community Solutions or for administrative matters, please call 718-618-2059

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