Bronx Community Solutions

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

"How BCS Helped Me"

Wilkins B, is not a seasoned criminal by anyone’s standard, but he was well on his way to becoming just another statistic – young black male, high school drop-out and unemployed.

When he was arrested five months ago for drug possession, he was worried about being sent to jail. “The judge said this was my last chance, if I didn’t do the 15 days with Bronx Community Solutions I would be going to jail for 6 months” he recalls.

An intelligent, charismatic young father of two, Wilkins had reached a dead end in his life. Frustrated and angry with himself, he wasn’t ready at first to listen to the Bronx Community Solutions group facilitator, Saudi Encarnacion, when she proposed that he enroll in a job training program. “I told Saudi, ‘I’m not going to talk to anyone in the program, just like I’m not I’m not talking to anyone in here.”

As a social worker I see many clients who present with defensive attitudes like the one Wilkins displayed. I’ve learned that it is a coping mechanism used to protect oneself from a system that has not yet earned their trust. Wilkins needed to feel like he could trust us and we needed to be trustworthy.

Wilkins was sent to F.E.G.S Career Development Institute (CDI) for the remainder of his mandate. CDI is one of BCS’s social service partners which provide a variety of job- training and employment skills to young adults ages 19 to 21. CDI empowers young adults like Wilkins to learn new skills, earn valuable educational and professional credentials and land a job in a career of their choice.

“I spent the first two days observing,” Wilkins recalls. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but then I saw that these people were really trying to help me. They just kept killing me with kindness. Before I knew it, my mandate was over.”

Wilkins decided to stay at F.E.G.S/CDI, soon after he was placed in the horticulture program they provide, a paid internship that last a couple of months. Wilkins loves it, “I’m so happy to be doing something different, now when I’m on my block, talking to my friends, I talk about something positive. While they’re talking about the new 2005 Lexus, I’m talking about London plains and oak trees.” He says that it’s like giving a little help back to nature, since she gives so much to us in return.

“I was a little resistant at first; I wanted to make sure BCS was serious about helping me. If I’m going to give my time, I want to see your dedication. And I’ve seen more dedication than I could expect – it’s still going on and my case was over months ago”.

Wilkins journey has just begun and with help he will continue to improve his situation. He’s glad that he’s no longer on the same destructive path, and he wants to make sure he doesn’t go back. “On my bedroom mirror I have the court papers to remind me, ‘Dude – Don’t do it!’ I want to be an example for others about turning a positive into a negative.”

It is unrealistic to assume that everyone who comes through BCS will have the same results as Wilkins, but it is important to give everyone who is sent to us that opportunity. For me, this is how success is measured, with the small steps individuals make towards positive change.

Friday, April 21, 2006

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.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

British Invasion

Phil Bowen appreciates the shock value of being an Englishman in the Bronx.

"You don't hear many posh British accents here," jokes Phil, who's on loan for a year from the Home Office, which sets criminal justice policy in England and Wales in areas like policing, probation and antiterrorism.

In addition to giving Phil a taste of the intake office, he's helping us think about how Bronx Community Solutions can work with the more than 40 judges in the Bronx.

It's a tall order (most problem-solving court projects limit their work to a single judge or single courtroom), but Phil is optimistic about what the project has already accomplished. "I'm surprised at how quickly Bronx Community Solutions has become embedded" in courtrooms like the two daytime arraignment parts where the project began, says Phil.

He attributes this to the "charm offensive" of staff who work day-to-day in the courtroom. According to Phil, their presence not only shows that Bronx Community Solutions "won't disappear," but, by bringing good news back to judges and court staff while asking for their ideas and input, carries the message that the project is "responding to a real need in a creative way."

Phil's goal in spending a year in the Bronx is to bring a birds-eye view of problem-solving innovation back to the UK, which has entered a fertile period of court reform. The first community court in England opened in Liverpool in 2005, after policymakers made a number of visits to New York to see the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Midtown Community Court in operation.

According to Phil, there is already discussion of expanding the model throughout the country, and he sees Bronx Community Solutions as a good place to examine the challenges of attempting reform on a larger scale. "I want to learn how to address the cynical civil servant who rightly wonders, 'what is this going to cost?' Officials like me have to be clear that while we may not be able to put community courts everywhere, we could make smart investments in (parts of the problem-solving model like) judicial monitoring and limited social service intervention and referral" says Phil.

In the meantime, Phil is enjoying his year in the Bronx. "It's quite a thrill to come out of the tube stop and see Yankee Stadium," he says.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Is It Worth It?

Bronx Community Solutions receives funding from multiple sources, including the State of New York, the City of New York, the Booth Ferris Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (which selected BCS as one of ten grantees for its Community-Based Problem-Solving Criminal Justice Initiative).

Is it a good investment? That’s the tough, but important, question to ask. And it’s a particularly important question for other jurisdictions that may be considering adopting their own version of Bronx Community Solutions.

One way of answering the cost question is to note the advantages of scale: with close to a thousand participants entering our program each month, we cost only about $100 per person. In exchange, we provide an extensive set of services – pre-court screening of cases, participant intake and scheduling, compliance monitoring, in-house social service classes and community service projects, referrals to other programs and follow-up with individuals interested in voluntary services.

That’s a pretty big bang for the buck, and we can tell a pretty impressive story about the number of intake interviews we conducted, compliance phone calls made, letters sent, social service classes held and community service projects organized, just to name a few examples.

But the “counting widgets” approach to cost-benefit analysis has become less popular in recent years, and for good reason. It helps define what we do, but not the benefits of our approach. And to be fair, before Bronx Community Solutions existed, a limited number of the functions described above were being provided by the court system or its partners, at lesser cost.

So the real question becomes: compared to what came before it, do the benefits of Bronx Community Solutions exceed its costs?

Here are four examples of benefits the project seeks to create:

Increased compliance with court orders
Before Bronx Community Solutions began, compliance with court-ordered alternatives stood at about 50 percent, not an unusual rate for large urban jurisdictions. There are a number of associated costs to non-compliance, not least of which is a sense of cynicism among criminal justice professionals that participants are not taking the court seriously. There's also the tangible cost of executing and enforcing warrants for non-compliance. In our first year of operations, compliance rates increased to 70 percent, a 40 percent improvement.

Additional sentencing options
When we began in the Bronx, judges had a limited number of sentencing options at their disposal for low-level offenders. For example, the court had no employment options (the service cited as a need most frequently by judges) as well as none for cases involving prostitution. Our goal is to greatly increase the number of community-based sentencing alternatives available to judges, and we've already added a number of options, such as 15 social service classes taught weekly, long-term job training mandates and a program for young girls in the sex trade. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can accomplish.

Access to long-term, voluntary services
Participants mandated to Bronx Community Solutions are with us for an average of four days, a reflection of the Bronx's high volume of misdemeanor cases (50,000 in 2004). Given this short period of program participation, we're focused on encouraging participants to pursue needed services voluntarily. In 2005, five percent of participants in our program received a referral for services (in line with what similar projects report). The percentage has grown to eight percent in 2006 (over 200 participants) as we add new services to the mix.

Building public confidence in justice
A final benefit might be harder to capture in dollars and cents. Surveys of public opinion show that courts score low in terms of public trust and confidence, particularly among African-Americans and Hispanics. However, large majorities of survey respondents respond favorably to courts adopting problem-solving techniques like hiring counselors and social workers. This suggests that programs like Bronx Community Solutions can go a long way towards strengthening the vitality of state courts as a democratic institution.

There are other potential benefits that I haven't mentioned yet, such as fewer short-term jail sentences, reduced redicivism and greater job satisfaction among court players. Those are complicated questions, and we'll know more about impacts in those areas in the months ahead.

How does this all add up? I think hard-nosed administrators should proceed cautiously before taking on an initiative like Bronx Community Solutions, or making other investments in problem-solving. It's hard work, and it takes an up-front investment of time and money.

Still, I think the case for a project like Bronx Community Solutions rests on realism. Just as the hard-nosed administrator has to be realistic about the costs of any new approach, she also has to consider the costs of "business as usual" when it comes to addressing low-level criminal offending. Unfortunately, that may be the easiest case to make.

Monday, April 10, 2006

California Dreaming?

A new study by researchers at UCLA provides some ammunition for supporters of a California law, passed in 2000, that mandates treatment instead of jail for non-violent offenders arrested on a drug-related crime, according to the New York Times.

The study found that the California Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act (SACPA) of 2000 provided $2.50 in benefits for every $1 invested by taxpayers, or a total of $1.5 billion over five years. Individuals who completed their court-mandated treatment program produced $4 in benefits for every $1 invested.

While these cost savings are impressive, it's not clear that the legislation is achieving the kinds of reductions in drug use and recidivism that its authors intended. For example, according to the report, only 34 percent of individuals who entered the program completed between 90 days and a year of drug treatment, an important step because treatment retention is an important indicator of long-term sobriety. Compare that to drug courts, which have about a 60 percent one-year treatment retention rate.

In addition, the report shows that conviction and arrest costs were higher for SACPA participants than a control group, driven largely by a small group of about 1,000 "high-impact" defendants who entered the program with five or more prior convictions.

Opinions differ about how to improve graduation rates and deal with high-impact defendants, who, according to the legislation, have the same right to treatment as a jail alternative as any other defendant. Some, following the drug court model, argue that the answer is to empower courts to mete out graduated sanctions and rewards to encourage compliance, or to modify the legislation to limit program entry to individuals with fewer than five convictions. It's clear, however, that any changes to the legislation will be resisted by its authors, who fear replacing a "treatment" model with a "punishment" model.

I'm interested in the California story, because it's an example of a very different model of institutionalization (and very different philosophy about the compatability of punishment and help) than Bronx Community Solutions. As a ballot initiative passed by 61 percent of the Calfornia electorate, SACPA can only be changed through additional legislation, which makes it tough to make mid-course corrections. It also imposed a host of new obligations on counties that may not be prepared to meet them.

On the other hand, SACPA has created profound statewide change in just a few years, helped by an annual influx of $120 million state dollars for drug treatment and other services. It's a tough trade-off: is it better to spread a new approach quickly, or move more slowly to make sure that it's being implemented effectively?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Changing Community Service

Maria and I met today with Gary Bagley, the Senior Director of Programs at New York Cares, to brainstom creative ideas about how to run our community service operation.

New York Cares is a non-profit organization that creates volunteer service opportunities for busy New Yorkers -- a total of 183,000 hours of volunteer service in 2005. Their volunteers provide SAT tutoring and computer instruction, serve food at homeless shelters, and lead GED study groups, among many projects.

I have a personal connection to New York Cares: one Saturday a month for several years, I took a group of kids living in temporary housing to a local library as part of the "Read to Me" program.

Community service is a fundamental part of a Bronx Community Solutions sentence, and since July 2005, we've been responsible for scheduling and supervising community service for thousands of mandated offenders. The operation we inherited provided what I would call traditional community service, in which offenders clean parks, train stations and the streets. In addition, we added two crews who patrol the courthouse area, working six hour days and wearing orange vests that say "Bronx Community Solutions."

This is the bread and butter of community service, and it's easy to see why it's attractive. It's cheaper than jail, and the crews do constructive work.

We think we can make community service even more meaningful, however, by increasing the number of sites that take work crews, including community-based organizations like business improvement districts, block assocations, churches and soup kitchens. That's where an organization like New York Cares can help us, because of their contacts in the Bronx.

We also want to use community service as a tool for helping our participants change their behavior, blurring the lines between a traditional community service sentence and social service sentence. Community service will always be hard work (and as a court mandate, it should be), but it can involve more than picking up garbage. For example, our crew supervisors have gotten pretty good at identifying folks who are serious about seeking out long-term, voluntary services like drug treatment or a job placement, because they get to see who shows up on time and is serious about working. They've sent a number of participants to our clinic for a job referral or for other types of services. Our challenge is to turn this ad-hoc process into a more systematic one for all of our community service sites.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Emma Vail

Today was Emma Vail’s second day on the job with Bronx Community Solutions.

Emma works for an organization called ReServe, which provides paid public service opportunities for older New Yorkers. She’ll work two days a week at Bronx Community Solutions, conducting intake interviews, making phone calls and sending letters to non-compliant participants as well as providing support to our busy social service staff.

Emma, who moved with her family to the Bronx in the 1930s only blocks from the courthouse, shared some of her memories with me. Her family moved from Mississippi after her father got word of a job opening at a bakery down the street from Yankee Stadium. At the time, the neighborhood was one of the most desirable in the city – in fact, the Grand Concourse was known as the “Park Avenue of the Bronx.”

In 1952, she and her family moved to the newly built Melrose Houses, on 152nd Street. Emma remembers the houses fondly – their well-tended grounds made her think she was “living in a park.”

Emma lived there until 1969, when she and daughter moved to Co-Op City, a huge complex of 35 high-rise buildings in northwest Bronx built on the site of the old Freedomland USA amusement park. One of the first families to move in, Emma remembers being surrounded by “sand and dirt” while construction continued. Co-Op City was an ambitious experiment designed to promote home ownership among the city’s middle class. It was built under the Mitchell-Lama program, in which developers were given tax breaks and subsidies in exchange for keeping housing affordable. (When Emma moved in, a one-bedroom apartment sold for $1,350.) The complex attracted middle-class families from the Bronx who had previously lived along the Grand Concourse, accelerating the decline of the area.

After working in a variety of human resource jobs in the public sector, Emma began looking for volunteer work after retiring seven years ago. She quickly became frustrated by a lack of good opportunities. She applied to ReServe after seeing a short article in a community newspaper, and was offered a position at Bronx Community Solutions. “I love it here,” Emma says.

Emma continues to live in Co-Op City, which, in recent years, has fallen on harder times. Its mortgage debt soared to $220 million by 2003, and without money to pay for basic upkeep, the complex began to badly deteriorate. Many of its residents are fixed-income seniors (Co-Op City has over 8,000 residents over the age of 65, making it the “largest naturally occurring retirement community in the nation”) who cannot afford increases in maintenance fees needed for upkeep. On March 15, Co-Op City’s 81 security officers and 75 lobby attendants went on strike, fueling safety fears among its residents.

While Co-Op City has struggled, the rest of the Bronx is booming, according to the New York Times. Several large new developments are in planning or are under construction, including the relocation of the Fulton Fish Market, the redevelopment of the Bronx Terminal Market, new commercial development along 149th Street and the construction of a new stadium for the Yankees. Some local leaders and residents are concerned, however, that the new wealth being generated in the Bronx will not be shared by all.

Emma has lived through a number of cycles of boom and bust in the Bronx. Her goal is to “give something back” to the community she has lived in most of her life.