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Monday, December 24, 2007

Who Get's Stopped By The Police?

I have a new article on the debate over racial profiling in the NYPD on Gotham Gazette. Click Here to view the article.

Friday, December 21, 2007

USA Today: Drug Courts Offer Offenders Alternatives

Damon Fuseyamore, 45, and the father of a 10-year-old son, celebrated 10 years of sobriety in June and has been a mechanic for the New York City Fire Department for six years, according to Dennis Reilly, former director of the Brooklyn Treatment Court. Fuseyamore's story is one of thousands touted by supporters of alternative drug courts.

Read the complete article here, reporting the continued growth of drug courts nationwide.

Click Here to read a great in-depth post on Moving Justice Forward about how drug court administrators document their success stories.

Click Here for a collection of some of Bronx Community Solutions' success stories.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Justice Delayed

This article from yesterday's New York Times, above the fold on the front page of the Metro section, scrutinized the decrepit state of maintenance on the public elevators at the Bronx Family-Criminal Courthouse building. It recounted horror stories of hour-plus delays and custody hearings postponed. What it didn't highlight was the larger context: major construction projects that dominate the area, and the delayed completion of the Hall of Justice building.

Additional coverage on 1010WINS.

Monday, December 10, 2007

No Longer the "Bonfire of the Vanities"

This article from today's New York Times is not to be missed. It takes stock of how reality and perception of New York City and especially the Bronx has changed in the twenty years after Tom Wolfe published his famous and controversial first novel, the Bonfire of the Vanities. What makes the article worth a look is interviews with several of the real-life people on whom principal characters in the novel were based.

Here on Changing the Court, our colleague Phil Bowen shared his reflections on reading Bonfire of the Vanities in the Bronx Criminal Court. His assessment - shared by the writer in the Times - is that the New York of today is one more at ease with itself than that portrayed in Bonfire of the Vanities, and that the passions Mr. Wolfe depicted in his novel have cooled in the two decades that followed.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

New Community Justice Blog

Our colleagues out in San Fransisco have launched a new blog, Moving Justice Forward, "dedicated to distributing information and discussing ideas related to collaborative justice programs in San Francisco and nationwide." Visit for full coverage of the press conference announcing a location for the Community Court, a view of the their first newsletter, and reporting on other developments in and around S.F.

I'll look forward to reading more from this promising project!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Building selected for San Fransisco Community Justice Center

On Jan. 4 the program began with five cases a week in the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street. Construction on two holding cells is currently moving forward at 575 Polk St. The social services will be located on the second floor of 555 Polk, which will become available to The City in March.

Click here to read a report from the San Francisco Examiner about the selection of a building for their community justice center project.

Click here for a Street View of the building on Google Maps (what's this?).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Community Court in Newark

This well-reported article from today's Newark Star-Ledger profiles a new Community Court planned for Newark, New Jersey. As Chris Pleasanton pointed out on the Courtbuilders listserv, a community court for Newark, the city where the original study of the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention was based, represents a coming full circle in the field of criminal justice.

Fordham Road

Transportation Alternatives recently unveiled an 2.0 version of their website. It maps comprehensive data on pedestrian and bicycle crashes and fatalities all over New York City in an accessible, easy to understand visual format.

The map shows that Fordham Road (above) in the Bronx is among the most dangerous areas for pedestrians in the City. The intersection of East Fordham Road and Webster Avenue has the most pedestrian and bicycle accidents of any intersection in the Bronx. Have a look at the map - it's easy to use. Zoom in on the Bronx to take a closer look. Other dangerous streets include 149th Street, from Grand Concourse to Third Avenue (especially around "the Hub"); Westchester Avenue and Southern Boulevard around West Farms, Bronx River, and Soundview; and the area around the shopping mall on White Plains Road between Story Avenue and Layfayette. In the crowded West Bronx (neighborhoods like Tremont, University Heights, Mount Eden, Mount Hope, Claremont, and Morrisania) there's a higher incidence of pedestrian injuries than in other parts of the Bronx.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Changing Bronx

On Friday, the cover feature of the real estate section in the Daily News included three articles about Adolfo Carrion and the revival of the Bronx.

"There hasn't been this much building in the Bronx since the 1920s," says Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión. "At my inauguration, I said, 'The Bronx is open for business.' People are working here, they're building here and, best of all, people are moving here."

You can read the section here, here, and here.

All of which got me thinking about urban development, gentrification, and problem-solving justice. Read More...

Problem solving projects like Bronx Community Solutions are about seeing beyond the basic facts of a simple court case to the life a person and the community. We try to understand each person's story, and we're proud of our successful clients. Invariably, however, our projects are also conceived of, supported, and funded by government and community stakeholders to deal with larger social issues. The connection between a focus on quality of life crime - petty crime, illegal economic activity, disorder and the breakdown of enforcement of social norms - and the pressures of gentrification is undeniable. Among other things, addressing quality of life crime helps make a neighborhood more attractive to business and real estate investment, and the placement and operation of community justice projects in New York City has always coincided with such trends.

Thinking about gentrification often means asking the question, "gentrification for whom?" In the case of the Midtown Community Court, the transformation of the Times Square area has involved offering people who's lives were a part of the old Times Square the opportunity to participate in a "New" Times Square through job training, vendor education, life skills, drug treatment, and counseling.

In the Bronx, an initiative like ours isn't happening here by accident. Our project dovetails with a long term plan for a Bronx Center revival and a constellation of large development projects: a new Yankee Stadium, the Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market, rehabilitation of the subway station, 161st Street, the Grand Concourse, and Lou Gehrig Plaza, a new Metro North station, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a new Housing Court building, and a long delayed, over budget, possibly unsound, but nonetheless still impressive Bronx County Hall of Justice (left).

Many who work in the field of problem-solving justice are motivated by a pure social justice perspective: government and civil society have a moral imperative not to keep doing more of the same, but to instead attempt daring solutions to our most onerous societal injustices.

However, our work has other implications for the city, as well. I'm ambivalent about the effects of gentrification on New York City. However, I do think that great cities must enforce shared social norms in public space - it's what allows such a mind-boggling array of human diversity to peacefully co-exist and thrive together, side by side. And further, it seems patronizing to take a picturesque or romanticized view of deprivation, poverty, and crime.

In the end, I guess I care about whether people feel safe, whether streets and parks are clean, whether people treat their neighborhood and each other with care, and that society reaches out to assist those in need. Governments are fairly good at executing major projects (like new stadiums) but I'm excited about taking a finer grain approach that's meaningful for individuals and day-to-day neighborhood concerns.



This morning, like many mornings over the past two years, I wind my way through a small maze of construction barriers as I walk up 161st Street from the subway station at Yankee Stadium to the Grand Concourse, past the old neo-classical Bronx County Courthouse and then down the hill to the looming concrete hulk (left) that contains Family Court and Criminal Court (built during the 70s in the "Brutalist" style, it seems deserving of the name).

I don't live in the Bronx (and I've only lived in New York City for about five years), but some recent changes are obvious - it's impossible to miss the large construction projects going on in the neighborhood around the courthouse, as well as the high-rise condos that seem to be sprouting all around downtown Brooklyn and on the section of Atlantic Avenue where I live. But many changes in the daily flow of the city that are only a few years old quickly acquire the patina of heavy use and appear to me, a relative newcomer, as if they've always been that way.

Along a corridor of 161st Street, from Yankee Stadium to 3rd Avenue, a constellation of construction projects is nearing completion. In Macombs Dam Park, right next to the existing Yankee Stadium, the enormous foundation for a new stadium is taking shape. Avant-garde new structures for a Housing Court and the Bronx Museum of Art line the Concourse a few blocks north. In front of the Bronx County Courthouse, the Department of Transportation is tearing up a big chunk of the street to rebuild Lou Gehrig Plaza. The Bronx County Hall of Justice (rendering below), a soaring glass and steel courthouse spanning two blocks and ten stories next to the existing building, is nearly completed after lengthy delays. A large shopping mall development for the Bronx Terminal Market, a new Metro North stop and other big developments are in various stages of planning. One thing I hear over and over again in the Bronx and in places all over the city is some version of "you should have seen this place ten years ago (or five years ago, or two years ago). This place used to be crazy (or dangerous or scary)."

The formula for success at projects like Midtown and Red Hook has included an eye to architecture. Where possible they have tried, through layout and design of their courtrooms, holding areas, lobbies, and offices to convey a spirit of dignity, efficiency, and openness to the community. I wonder what effect the new courthouse, which seems to aspire to similar aims on a much larger scale, will have on the delivery of justice in the Bronx.

Here is long article on the history of development plans for a "Downtown Bronx" or Bronx Center.

Here is more information on the new courthouse.

And here is an article from [April 22, 2007] in the Times recounting some of the construction delays that have mired the new courthouse.



It seems like these kinds of large projects, together with attention to zoning and efforts to attract business investment, really have the power to reshape the city and its neighborhoods.

However, for the average citizen, I think small scale things make a much bigger difference: whether their garbage is collected on time, whether their parks are accessible and clean, whether they have access to local amenities and community resources, and whether their neighborhood is friendly and safe.

As New York goes through an historic era of building and growth I'm heartened by a lot of the trends: new local parks like this one in Hunt's Point; less glamorous and more mundane improvements to streets and mass transit like this; construction on new affordable housing like this, the Bronx's wealth of smart, savvy community groups, local development corporations, and aggressive, forward thinking social service providers; new schools like the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice; and components of PlaNYC that would residents of the Bronx including more city-maintained trees and access to neighborhood parks in all parts of the city, not just the places that are attractive to tourists and major corporations; capital improvements to major regional destination parks in the Bronx like the High Bridge and Soundview Park; and aggressive strategies for addressing traffic congestion, air pollution and solid waste management that could have environmental justice dividends for Bronx residents suffering from asthma, obesity, and more than their fare share of noxious and polluting properties.



Here's a excellent feature article from L Magazine, a weekly arts, culture, and event guide, bemoaning the effects of gentrification. It's conveys a good sense of why we should be ambivalent when it comes to gentrification, although it also provides an example of the potential pitfall of romanticizing drug addiction and deprivation.

And, here's a report from the New York Times in 1990 about construction of the Concourse Plaza Shopping Center.

Will all the new parking at Yankee Stadium become a park and ride, asks City Limits in this article. I found a link to the article on West Bronx Blog.

Here's a link to a map that shows where all the new parking facilities are located.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Teaching Tolerance to Teens

How often do you hear the N-word, the B-word, anti-Semitic remarks or rants against homosexuality?

How often do you stereotype or make generalizations based on someone’s race, gender, religion or sexual orientation?

Unfortunately, answering “every day” to at least part of either question is probably the norm. With that reality in mind, Tolerance and Diversity became the perfect theme for the Juvenile Accountability Court’s most recent community service learning cycle. Click here to Read More.

In the midst of brainstorming ideas for our third cycle of community service learning, Chief Bronx Family Court Judge, Clark V. Richardson suggested the theme of Tolerance and Diversity after presiding over a case that involved a hate crime. In addition to the stories heard about Chinese food delivery men who are robbed en route, it is not uncommon to discover racial epithets or intolerance as the motivation for teenagers assaulting one another. As young people begin to define themselves and group accordingly, conflict with others can become a way to demonstrate their allegiance. Travel the Bronx and one will be hard pressed to find a teenager who does not know about the so-called Dominican-Puerto Rican rivalry. The concern within the court system is when this intolerance turns violent. Working with Judge Richardson’s suggestion, the goal of our theme was to take a birds-eye view of this type of intolerance and address related issues. What is the role of a Hispanic woman? Is bi-sexuality a choice? Is there anything wrong with questioning the existence of God?

Questions such as these would generate discussion and expose the diversity of beliefs existing just within the group itself, teaching everyone to be more understanding and tolerant of each other and by extension of greater society. The more we explored the theme, the more we recognized how extensive it was. To simplify things, we decided to divide it into four separate categories: race/ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

After spending the first two sessions providing the group with general information on all four topics, we divided them into groups of four and assigned each group one of the topics to specialize in. We reviewed key concepts such as genocide, homophobia and racism. We studied events like the Holocaust, the tragedy of Matthew Shepard and the Civil Rights movement. Also, for the first time, we included current events related to our topic. Diversity in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Jena Six controversy, and the incident surrounding Senator Larry Craig of Idaho all made for a lively discussion. With each meeting, they gravitated toward their distinct topics, asking more and more questions, often times competing with each other on who was smarter.

In addition to the workshops, we also made sure to include our core community service projects. In early October, we spent an entire day painting over graffiti at the Andrew Freedman Home, located at 167th street and the Grand Concourse. Originally designed as a home for the elderly, it now also houses organizations like the Head Start and Family Preservation programs. The following week, the Juvenile Accountability Court probationers spent the day packaging supplies at the World Vision warehouse, a community based resource center located in the South Bronx.

For the first time we also took the group on a field trip during the week. After school one day, the probationers gathered at Bronx Family Court where we escorted them in the Bronx Community Solutions community service van to the New York City Tolerance Center, located in midtown Manhattan. The group took a tour of their state-of-the-art facility, learned about intolerance in the media and had an opportunity to ask tough questions and test what they had learned in our workshops. The experience was rewarding for everyone and we are ambitious to include a trip to the Tolerance Center in every cycle of community service learning henceforth.

Keeping with tradition, the cycle finished with a graduation ceremony held this past Wednesday night. In attendance were Judges Clark Richardson, Monica Drinane and Sidney Gribetz. There were also several probation officers, a team from the corporation counsel, staff from Full Circle Health and Bronx Community Solutions, and a representative from the New York City Tolerance Center. As the audience circulated the fair-like presentations, the group explained topic-related literature on their tables and answered challenging questions from the event's guests. To highlight their topic, the group assigned to “gender” played one of R-Kelly’s hit songs “Feelin’ on your Booty.” The song wasn’t playing for entertainment, but rather as an example of misogynistic lyrics. At the “race and ethnicity” table, scenes from the film American History X played in the background to underscore the group’s message about racism and white-supremacy. After about twenty minutes, the guests returned to their seats for a brief Q & A session and the presentation of certificates.

Thinking back on our first three cycles, this was the best one yet. Aside from this being our largest group to graduate, and for the first time the presence of so many judges and family court personnel at the graduation, the young people in this cycle were really able to grasp the theme and many of its concepts. Probationers with the Juvenile Accountability Court come in all shapes and sizes. The level of maturity and intelligence varies greatly and it’s important that we take this into account with the ideas we present and the activities we engage in. Tolerance and Diversity worked because of both its breadth and simplicity and we will be sure to consider such characteristics in every theme we choose hereafter.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Fight Against Drunk Driving

My new article on preventing drunk driving deaths in New York is on-line at Gotham Gazette. You can view it here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mapping plan backfires

According to reporting in the New York Times, in response to accusations of racial profiling the Los Angeles Police Department recently decided to scrap a plan to create a map detailing the Muslim communities in that city.

"In his testimony, to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Downing said the project would determine the geographic distribution of Muslims in the sprawling Los Angeles area and take 'a look at their history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socioeconomic status and social interactions.' [and] . . . factors like exposure to the puritanical teachings of the Wahhabi sect, instability in countries of origin and where they get their news. He also suggested that the study would result in helping amplify the voice of Muslim moderates who could counter fanatics."

The deputy police chief in charge of the project gets high marks for his community policing efforts, even from those who oppose the plan. However, Peter Bibring, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, said in an interview, "Police can and should be engaged with the communities they are policing, but that engagement can't be a mask for intelligence gathering."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bronx Media on the Web

I often enjoy reading the Metro section of the newspaper the most. I thought I would post a round-up of the Bronx local news outlets and blogs I've found on the web. Click here to view it. Does anyone have one to add?

Beekman in the Bronx: Bronx and NYC news as reported by Dan Beekman.

Bronx Bohemian: In search of the artsy and bohemian in the Bronx.

Bronx Report: Opinionated, fine-grained observations on daily life in the Bronx. Also some reporting on U.N. related issues, and an interest in equitable lending practices.

Bronx Beat: The student newspaper of the Columbia School of Journalism, published in the Spring semester. [03/30/2009 - link does not appear to be working at this time]

Bronx River Alliance: Their calender and announcements section is a great source for upcoming events.

Bronx News: This is the website of Bronx News, a borough-wide paper, Parkchester News, the paper of the Parkchester development, City News, the paper of Co-Op City, and Vocero, a Spanish language paper catered to Puerto Ricans.

Bronx Times: On-line version of local paper for the Morris Park and Throgs Neck area. The New York City section of this busy discussion forum has lots of (often inflammatory) neighborhood specific opinions on crime, amenities, and real estate values for people contemplating a new home or an apartment.

City Limits: News and analysis focused on New York City's non-profit, policy and activism sector.

Crain's New York Business: Covers stories related to business, real estate, politics and small business. Often break's political stories and publishes important feature pieces.

Daily News: Bronx Borough section.

Daily Politics: The blog of Daily News political correspondent Elizabeth Benjamin

Gotham Gazette: Excellent reporting on New York City public policy issues. Good guide to NYC-focused blogs here, and an archive of criminal justice related articles (including several by former Bronx Community Solutions Project Director Aubrey Fox) is available here.

Highbridge Horizon: Online version of local paper covering Highbridge.

Hunts Point Express: Online newspaper serving Hunts Point and Longwood.

Mr. Babylon: Daily observations of an anonymous, disaffected public school teacher at a Bronx public high school.

Mount Hope Monitor: Online version of Spanish/English community paper serving the west Bronx neighborhoods of Mount Hope, Morris Heights, South Fordham and University Heights.

New York City News Service: A city-wide news service by the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

NY1: Bronx Borough section.

NYPD Rant: Busy discussion forum for police officers to rant and gripe.

New York Sun: Local daily paper for New York City, with particularly good reporting on legal issues.

NYT City Room Blog: Metro/City Section blog of the New York Times. Courts and Law beat.

Norwood News: Online version of local paper serving Norwood, Bedford Park, North Fordham and University Heights.

Picture The Homeless Blog: A prominent New York City homeless advocacy and policy organization.

Razor Apple is a blog about New York City arts, culture and happenings.

Riverdale Press: Online version of local paper serving Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Kingsbridge Heights, and Marble Hill, including an informative police beat section.

Subchat Interesting city-wide news service, a bulletin board for discussion of rail and rapid transit topics.

Starts and Fits: This New York-centric blog written by urban planner Aaron Donovan is focused on land use and transportation.

Streetsblog: Fantasic group blog focused on livable streets and transportation, a project of the Open Planning Institute.

West Bronx Blog: Great group news blog on variety of local Bronx subjects. Probably the best source of Bronx related news on-line.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Reporting: Case Study of Failure and more on L.A.'s Skid Row

I thought these two articles were worthy of being highlighted. The first installment in a three part series from the New York Times follows a trail of scandals and disappointments in the city child welfare system that provides an interesting case study of the dynamics that can allow a good idea to fail in implementation. The second article, from GOOD Magazine, is an interesting gloss of life for families and children living in L.A.'s Skid Row area, and the effects of the City's policing strategies there.

Click here: Foster Children at Risk, and an Opportunity Lost to read the full New York Times article.

Click here: Welcome to Los Angeles to read the full GOOD Magazine article.

For highlights

One of the painful truths of child welfare work is that the best agencies can make terrible mistakes. . . . The tensions only worsened in the late 1980s and early ’90s as the crack epidemic sent tens of thousands of additional children into foster care, nearly all of them black or Latino. Overwhelmed, the foster care system began to fail. Newborn babies were left in hospitals; children who had been removed from their homes for their own safety were made to sleep in city offices for nights on end; those who made it into foster homes regularly became lost in a netherworld of bureaucratic indolence. . . . An idea about one new way forward emerged. Foster care agencies would be created that would be run by people who looked like, and shared the culture of, the children in their care.

'The time of white missionaries tellng people of color how to live their lives must come to an end.' Luis Medina, a charismatic and outspoken child welfare administrator who had grown up poor in the city, became one of the most aggressive proponents of the new philosophy. Mr. Medina liked to say that foster care in New York had become an evil and racist system that was engaged in little more than rounding up poor minority children. He suggested that the traditional foster care agencies that had long been dominant were too interested in collecting government checks.

This inflammatory but poignent comment left by a reader here on this blog gives a glimpse of the frustration felt by parents in Family Court:

the Bronx family court is a laugh. It is a zoo with no order and no professionalism. No one helps me. The judge, lawyer, ACS worker and all those involved are part of a plot to destroy the human family in the name of federal funding while kidnapping and saling our children to the highest bidder supposedly in "the best interest of the child". This horrendous practices called 'hearings, reunification plans, custody/visits' are horrific and illegal and immoral and inhumane yet it is still in full effect and still attack, degrade, destroy INNOCENT PARENTS and children and families. What manner of beast would do this to our children and our families? Please help me. If you have any information, advice, prayer, legal referrals, etc. I most certainly appreciate it.

From "Welcome to Los Angeles:"

In September 2006, the Safer Cities Initiative deployed 50 new cops on loan from other divisions to target drug crimes and so-called quality-of-life crimes like public urination and jaywalking. Critics worry that the initiative, a partnership among the LAPD, the Mayor’s office, the City Attorney, and the Central City East Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for property owners, is a lot of one-time money with solutions that don’t address the root problems. That being said, the numbers are looking good. “Crime is down 30 percent,” says Commander Smith. “The homeless population in Skid Row is down significantly ... and we have made 7,500 narcotics and parolee arrests since Safer Cities was implemented.

The stories in Skid Row are almost always the same: domestic violence, addiction, illness, incarcerated husbands, missed appointments, and canceled benefits. With no place left to go and no resources, this is where people end up. It’s the last stop, made up of the people at the bottom.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Learning From Failure

"In general, it is human nature to shout about new ideas that have succeeded - while failure is discussed in hushed whispers, if at all . . . If we want to encourage criminal justice officials to test new ideas and challenge conventional wisdom, we need to create a climate where failure is openly discussed."

The Center for Court Innovation's project on failure in the criminal justice system - an edited transcript of the discussion can be found here - was recently released, and has already generated a lot of buzz in the legal blogosphere, from sites as diverse as the Legal Blog Watch, Open Eye Communications, AlertInfo and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (the event's sponsor).

It also got me thinking about the important role that failure has played in Bronx Community Solutions.

As Project Director, I've spent a lot of time touting our successes, which at this point I can rattle off without breaking a sweat: steep reductions in the use of jail for low-level offenders; more sentencing options for judges and greater utilization of community service and social service mandates; a 40 percent increase in compliance with court orders; over $1 million in community service projects for the Bronx; and literally thousands of participants who have been connected to social services like a job, drug treatment or recreational opportunities after their mandate is complete.

I'm proud of what we've accomplished in the almost three years of operations in the Bronx. But it's not really all of the story. Any experienced practitioner (or even educated citizen) is by now familiar with the de rigeour litany of project success: it seems like even the most modest policy initiatives are bristling with impressive statistics and achievements. On balance, I think that's a good thing - after all, we live in a more results oriented world.

What's lost in this relentless chatter about problems solved, milestones reached and money saved, however, is a candid discussion of the challenges and frustrations of public sector innovation. That's why it was such a relief to hear committed professionals talk about failure. It's about as close as you'll get to the experience of hearing their thoughts over a beer (without the beer, of course).

If that were the report's only achievement, it would be well worth reading. But the piece also does a nice job of capturing something about Bronx Community Solutions that I've found hard to put into words.

In private moments, I think of the accomplishments cited above as the coin we pay for being allowed to fail. What I'm proudest about Bronx Community Solutions is that we've taken an open minded, non-bureaucratic approach to addressing problems faced in a large, urban courthouse. Inevitably, that's going to lead to failure, as we try out new things and discard what isn't working.

As the transcript nicely captures, it's possible to survive failure. It doesn't have to be a career killer. In fact, failure should be built in to any successful project.

So I leave you with a question: have you failed lately? And if not, why not?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mapping the homeless population

Click Here to view a fascinating mapping tool that tracks changes in the homeless population around "Skid Row," the Central City East district of Los Angeles, as counted by the LAPD during a recent six month period.

Some Respite, if Little Cheer, for Skid Row Homeless This article from today's New York Times gives a good account of the current situation

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New Reports on North Liverpool and Salford projects

Evaluation reports were released yesterday for the Salford and North Liverpool community justice projects in England (thanks to Julius Lang for the lead). You can view the reports here. To view the key findings, Read More...

- Strong judicial case management and close multi-agency collaboration has improved efficient court operation.

- Both projects developed a range of methods to improve public awareness of the work of the court, and increase the visibility of the judiciary and criminal justice agencies; as well as to directly involve local people in identifying priority offences and identifying local areas or facilities to be improved by offenders on unpaid work.

- Both projects focused on tackling the underlying issues which drive or perpetuate offending. The reports also found that increased direct engagement with defendants as well as the strong judicial leadership evident in North Liverpool has ensured a more tailored and responsive approach to offenders' needs.

- In both North Liverpool and Salford the judiciary, court staff and other professional stakeholders perceived that bringing offenders back to court for reviews of their community orders under Section 178 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is effective in helping to motivate offenders successfully to complete their orders.

The North Liverpool section the City Of Liverpool website provides an interesting overview of urban development plans in the borough.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Bronx News

I thought I'd end the week with two interesting Bronx news stories: a profile of the strange relationship between President Hugo Chavez and community development in the South Bronx, and coverage of a robbery pattern targeting Mexican laborers. Read More...

Last Sunday, the New York Times profiled the beguiling relationship between Hugo Chavez and the South Bronx. The Bronx has been one of the prime benefactors of Citgo (the national oil company of Venezuela)'s subsidized heating oil program for homes in low-income communities in several cities across the country. But in addition to the heating oil program, Chavez made generous, low-key, no-strings attached donations to some of the best programs and local organizations leading the way in the Bronx. The article interview several community leaders who have benefited from the donation and who were recently hosted in Venezuela as guests of Mr. Chavez. Many seem unsure what to make of these activities. The assistance is certainly making a big difference in the Bronx. However, is it all just intended to embarrass the U.S. government and U.S. businesses? And how are the poor in Venezuela fairing compared to people in the Bronx? Here's the article.

And this article details a possible emerging crime pattern: groups of young men have been robbing Mexican laborers at gunpoint, often on their way home from the subway, in Kingsbridge and other parts of the west Bronx. The Mexican workers are often undocumented, and carry cash instead of paychecks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Using Text Messaging

Reporting from Britain: "A text alert scheme which reminds criminals to turn up for community service is to be extended to other types of court orders." Click here to read the full story.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two Directions on Homelessness

Significant changes in city policies regarding homelessness were reported today in Los Angeles and New York, taking the two cities in very different directions. Read More... The City of Los Angeles and the ACLU announced a settlement today in a case filed by six homeless people in 2003 over an ordinance that prohibits sleeping on sidewalks, and which had been used by the Los Angeles Police Department to roust the homeless from Skid Row.

Under the terms of the settlement, individuals may sleep on the sidewalk from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. if they are at least 10 feet from business and residential entrances and are not engaged in criminal activity. The settlement will remain in place for at least several years, until the city builds 1,250 new units of supportive housing in the Skid Row area and other parts of the city.

In New York, the City announced that it will close a loop hole that allowed families who apply for benefits but are turned down to obtain emergency overnight housing. The city had allowed families who had been ruled ineligible to be given shelter for one night if they reapplied after 5 p.m.

Approaches towards homelessness vary markedly in America's major cities. Planners who are attempting to replicate New York's Midtown Community Court model in San Fransisco's Tenderloin District found that major differences in public opinion on the issue forced them to set aside some parts of the Midtown formula.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Update: Larry Craig

Hennepin County Judge Charles Porter issued his ruling yesterday Larry Craig will not be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. From the New York Times: "Judge Porter wrote that there were 'no hints of a lack of guilt of the offense of disorderly conduct.' He called 'illogical' the argument that Mr. Craig was unaware of the facts to which he admitted guilt, saying the police report was attached to the plea petition and that Mr. Craig signed or initialed the pages. As for the argument that Mr. Craig did not enter the plea 'intelligently,' the judge said: “The defendant, a career politician with a college education, is of at least above average intelligence. He knew what he was saying, reading and signing.'... 'The defendant chose not to appear and to enter his plea by mail just so he could avoid publicity,' the judge wrote."

The full court order can be read here. How does this all compare to a typical misdemeanor plea? Read More...

Sen. Craig actually had exceptionally good circumstances under which to consider and enter his plea. Though not a lawyer, he is certainly a sophisticated operator, whose professional life consists of reading, debating and voting on legislation. Though not assisted by counsel, he was able to read over his guilty plea at leisure, in the comfort of his office.

Contrast that with the typical circumstances of a guilty plea to disorderly conduct in an urban courthouse. The defendant is a high-school dropout. He meets briefly with a lawyer while waiting in a crowded, fetid holding cell, after having been detained for 12-24 hours. His plea, which he enters before the judge in open court, usually happens very quickly. He may have the chance to ask his lawyer about the consequences of a plea, but this happens quickly, and there may be things he doesn't think to ask about, or his lawyer doesn't mention.

Regret is often a part of a guilty plea - even to a minor charge. Reading about this case reminded me of a message I received once on our office answering machine. An unidentified, sad sounding voice said, "I'm calling because I don't think I want to take this plea..." Of course, he'd already taken the plea, and his chances of ever taking it back were very small.

A Phoenix From the Ashes

Today is the 30th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter's historic visit to the South Bronx, in the same year that Howard Cosell famously declared, "Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is burning."

By the time of Carter's visit to Charlotte Street arson, crime, a lack of city services and abandonment and neglect by landlords had reduced much of the area to a near desert of abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and piles of broken rubble. Part of the street had even been taken off the City map. Read More...

The story of Charlotte street is a model of succesful housing redevelopment. According to the New York Times, "Today, Charlotte Street feels not so much like the southern Bronx but Long Island. Now primarily a mix of Asian, African-American and Latino families, it is a sleepy three-blocks lined with clean sidewalks and white-painted wrought iron fences. There are worn welcome mats at the front doors and pink flamingo and chipmunk ornaments in the yards." Over many years neighborhood activists and clergy, community development groups and local, state and federal officials used public subsidies, city-donated land and tax abatements to rebuild this and other areas of the South Bronx. Today, houses on the street are worth $500,000.

Click here to read the full article. Whether the South Bronx has truly outgrown its reputation for crime and lawlessness is hotly debated topic among observers of gentrification. Here is a long and heated argument in a discussion forum about the Mott Haven, Hunts Point, and Port Morris areas.

Human Trafficking in New York

You can read my latest article in the Gotham Gazette, on human trafficking in New York here.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Financial Literacy

"Have you ever had a credit card?"

A little while ago I had a chance to talk to folks from NEDAP about what kind of trainings and service referrals we could offer our clients. They suggested I begin by asking one or two simple questions during our intake process about our clients' histories and experiences using credit and financial products. Read More...

Nedap (Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project) is a great resource and advocacy organization that works to enhance financial justice in low-income communities and communities of color. They partner extensively with neighborhood associations and groups to provide in-depth training on financial literacy and develop coalitions to advocate against predatory financial practices. Check out their website for more information about the reports and trainings they have available as well as links to other New York and national organizations.

Don't miss this article from the New York Times a few weeks ago: Cash to Get By Is Still Pawnshop’s Stock in Trade. It's a long and mostly sympathetic profile of pawnshops as a neighborhood financial institution. This map (click here to enlarge) from the article shows that the largest concentration of pawnshops in New York City are in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Notice the large clump around the Fordham Road area in the Bronx - the busiest retail commercial hub in the Borough.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Update: Judicial Elections

In a previous post about The Process is the Punishment, I noted that author Malcolm Feeley placed great emphasis on the role of political patronage in organization and decision-making process of courts and wondered how much of a role that factor still played. This month we had a Surrogates Court race in Brooklyn (a position historically assocated with patronage). Recent scandals in Brooklyn have resulted in resignations and the imprisonments of at least one judge as well as the County Democratic Party leader. Many of the scandals focused on accusations that judicial candidates were forced to "buy" their seats from political leaders. Read More to find out what was the outcome of the race.

Well, the "reform" candidate beat the "party" candidate in the September 18 Democratic primary. A closer read of the candidates histories indicates that both have ties to the local political establishment. Nonetheless Shawndya Simpson promoted a more reform minded agenda and was endorsed by more independent good government and reform groups. Here is a good explanation of the race on Gotham Gazette (and some other judicial elections around the city).

The New York Times quoted one Democratic political consultant as saying: "The Brooklyn Democratic Party, though it’s the largest [county organization in the state], hasn’t been a strong unified machine since the days of Meade Esposito,” who led the Brooklyn Democratic Party for a quarter century until he retired in 1983.

New Update (10/05/2007): The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case challenging the process for selecting judicial candidates as being to tightly controlled by political parties. Although two lower courts found that the current process is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court appears unlikely to overturn the current system.

From the New York Times: "The lead plaintiff is Margarita López Torres, now the Brooklyn Surrogate Court judge, who as an elected Civil Court judge tried unsuccessfully to get the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s backing to run for State Supreme Court. She had angered party leaders by refusing to make patronage appointments." Full Article, and background.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Update: Sen. Craig Case Goes to Court Today

As reported by the Associated Press (in the New York Times), Senator Craig's lawyers are appearing in court today to challenge his guilty plea. You can read a complete transcript of his motion here.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Paradise Theater

The Paradise Theater was known for being extravagant and grandiose back in 1929 when it originally opened. It's one of the largest and most famous theaters from the era of ornate movie palaces, one of the five original "Loew's Wonder Theaters" in the New York City area - and it's a symbol of the Bronx's glory days. It was closed for over a decade, but now it's been meticuliously restored and it reopened in 2005. Recently Bronx Community Solutions got to play its own role in rehabilitating this landmark. Read More....

Bronx Borough President, Carrion felt the theater needed a little "face lift" on the outside. From years of the theater just sitting there, parts of the building became covered with a lot of grafitti. Carrion was driving by the historic theater one day and thought, "this is terrible!" so he asked Bronx Community Solutions to adopt the project. Our crew painted over a half block of graffiti covered walls, and while our crew was working, a representative from State Senator Jose Serrano Jr.'s office stopped by to have a look (as well as the local NYPD Community Affairs team).

Located right in the bustling Fordham Road shopping district, the Paradise is a highly visible symbol that the "Bronx is rising" as a social, cultural and economic center.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Larry Craig and Due Process

It's reported that Idaho Senator Larry Craig has hired a high powered legal team to try to overturn his guilty plea for soliciting an undercover officer in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, though his chances of succeeding are apparently slim. It appears he'll challenge his arrest, but I wonder if he'll also challenge the circumstances of his plea.

In some states, people can resolve criminal cases without showing up in court at all (which is what Sen. Craig did). Sometimes this is a way to avoid the embarrassment of a public court appearance. The practice raises some interesting questions about due process. Read More.

Sen. Craig entered a guilty plea by mail, without an appearance before a judge or the benefit of counsel, to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct and a sentence of a fine and one year unsupervised probation. You can view a copy of the two-page plea agreement that he signed, courtesy of the Associated Press. To my knowledge, no comparable arrangement exists in New York City - it's not possible to enter such a plea without appearing in person before a judge and usually being represented by counsel. I wonder which process Sen. Craig would have preferred?

Of course, the senator is far from a "typical" defendant in a minor criminal case. I wonder what kind of court process most people would prefer? Some of our clients are frustrated and confused by by their experience in court, unsure about what they've pled guilty to, and angry about the circumstances of their arrest. They're usually very vocal, and we take the time to listen to them and answer their questions. The emerging theory of procedural justice states that transparency, explanations of how decisions are made, and the chance for defendants to express "their side of the story" all increase perceived legitimacy of the process and the likelihood that defendants will comply.

However, Malcolm Feeley presents a different view in The Process is the Punishment. He argues that for the average criminal defendant, the perceived costs of a criminal conviction don't seem as serious as the collateral costs of a court case: lost days of work and missed appointments, the cost of hiring a lawyer, childcare, and in some cases the possibility of pre-trial detention. Feeley proposes the possibility that most defendants facing minor criminal charges would prefer a traffic court-like process that sacrifices due process for efficiency. He suggests that even though some defendants may have plausible alibis or reasonable basis for challenging the evidence against them, they prefer a system that might permit more errors but minimizes their appearances in court and involvement with the system.

I wonder how defendants, judges and attorneys in the Bronx and elsewhere view this question. Is there a point where the collateral costs of too much due process outweigh the benefits for many defendants? Is there minimum amount of process without which essential rights are not protected and checks on the police to prevent false arrests are not in place? And where does Bronx Community Solutions fit in? We try to make our procedures simple and efficient for our clients. At the same time, we weigh the benefit of a more meaningful sentence to the defendant, the courts, and the community, and the importance of ensuring and verifying compliance with court mandates.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bronx Food Gems

One economic development strategy promoted by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion is a campaign to get more Bronx restaurants listed in the Zagat guide. Editor Tim Zagat took a tour of the borough's food spots with Carrion, and the Borough President's office has been coordinating a campaign to encourage Bronx diners to participate in the voting process that determines listings in the guide. Click Here for a great discussion of Bronx food on the website Chowhound.

Recently, this lively discussion of hidden gems in the Bronx erupted on the foodie website Chowhound. From established eateries to food carts and hole-in-the-wall lunch counters readers have compiled an impressive guide to out-of-the-way and lesser known food choices in the Bronx (including a side discussion of Yankee Stadium/ Courthouse area options). It gives a great sense of the neighborhood and ethnic diversity in the Bronx. Thanks to West Bronx Blog for spotting the thread. Does anyone have a Bronx food gem to add to the list?

On a related note, according to economic development organizations like the New York Industrial Retention Network, specialty ethnic food production is a growth industry for New York that's moving into old manufacturing areas (like parts of the Bronx). New York's multitude of immigrant communities makes a great incubator for new ethnic food products.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

NYT: Change in approach to gang problem

According to this article from the New York Times today, policy makers and law enforcement leaders in jurisdictions such as Los Angelos and Texas that pioneered hard-hitting anti-gang tactics in the nineties (which included laws prohibiting two or more gang suspects from congregating in a public place, broad sweeps of suspects, and long jail sentences for gang-related crimes) think those tactics may have worsened the problems they were meant to solve by alienating poor communities from the police and hardening juvenile delinquents into serious criminals. Now, they're focusing their strategies and funding priorities on prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation. For an interesting example of what that means to the court system, and a question about the issue of culture read more.

The article cites an example of a young man, 16, who was arrested for possesing a knife at his local public school, and then arrested a second time for being high on marijuana at his alternative state school. It was only after these arrests that he decided to join a gang and commit an unarmed robbery along with several other young men. These types of charges are viewed as "minor" within the courts. While media attention and decision-making is driven by high profile killings, it is the response that the justice system makes to these low-level criminal offenses that might have the biggest impact on the gang problem.

The article also raises the issue of culture. Officials and community leaders are quoted wondering how police and communities should react when young people who are not necessarily gang affiliated wear gang style clothing and make gang gestures.

For more on the topic, the website of the National Gang Center (a joint project between between the Office of Justice Programs’ (OJP) Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is a good resource.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

This Sunday, Bronx Community Solutions experimented with a new kind of community service. We met our clients first thing in the morning and transported them onto Randalls Island to volunteer at the Farm Aid concert - an annual charity concert to benefit family farmers that's been running for over 20 years and was held here in New York City this year. Read more... After we arrived at the event and checked everybody in, our clients received a short training from John Johnson of the Council on the Environment of New York City on compostables, recyclables, and how to set up a recycling station, and then were given a Farm Aid t-shirt to wear while they were volunteering. CENYC was partnering with Farm Aid to make sure that all the trash generated at the event was composted or recycled. Then we went into the concert venue and spread out. Our clients worked in pairs to set up stations and then show people how to separate and properly dispose of their trash.

For our clients, volunteering at the event was a chance to improve their people skills and do something proactive - helping people to properly dispose of their trash instead of cleaning up a park or a street that's already been trashed. For us it was a chance to provide some manpower and help out a great organization that we'd like to partner with more. We've been helping CENYC put on recycling outreach events in the South Bronx (an area of the city that has some of the lowest recycling rates). CENYC also has extensive experience providing material support to community gardens and community greening groups, running the City's Green Market program, training students to improve conditions in their neighborhood that impact public safety and quality of life (by doing things like identifying leaking fire hydrants, clogged catch basins, noisy subways, exposed street lamp wiring and other hazardous conditions and reporting them to the appropriate agencies, then monitoring conditions to make sure they improve) and we'd love to benefit from their expertise.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Process is the Punishment

"Jammed every morning with a new mass of arrestees who have been picked up the night before, lower courts rapidly process what the police consider to be 'routine' problems - barroom brawls, neighborhood squabbles, domestic disputes, welfare cheating, shoplifting, drug possession, and prostitution - not 'real' crimes. These courts are chaotic and confusing; officials communicate in a verbal shorthand wholly unintelligble to accused and accuser alike, and they seem to make arbitrary decision, sending one person to jail and freeing the next." Read more...

I came across this book in the resource library at the Center for Court Innovation. You can view more excerpts here. Published in 1979, Malcolm Feeley's study consists of intensive observation, interviews and statistical research at the New Haven Court of Common Pleas that examine how the law is applied in practice and how a lower criminal court functions as an organization. Though much has changed since the book was published, the general form of the modern, centralized lower court had emerged by the time of Feeley's study, including the major Supreme Court decisions of the fifties and sixties, the formalization of procedure, expansion and strengthening of the rights of the accused, the professionalization of court personnel, and the universal practice of court appointed public defenders.

One noticeable difference is the racial make-up of the court, then and now. As Feeley says, "defendants in these courts, particularly in urban areas, are predominantly Black, while court officials are predominantly white." While Feeley was writing in a post-civil rights era, it would take another generation before blacks and Hispanics rose into positions of power in the legal field. Today in the Bronx, the leaders in the court system - the chief administrative judge for the Criminal Division and the Bronx County District Attorney - are African-American. Blacks, Hispanics (and many women) make up a majority of the judges we deal with and dominate the ranks of court officers, police officers, and court clerks, while defense attorneys and prosecutors are racially diverse as well.

Another major feature of Feeley's court that seems less prominent now is the role of political patronage and machine politics in the appointment of jobs such as court clerk and judge. This article appearing in the New York Times a few months ago hinted at political nepotism, political corruption scandals involving the Brooklyn judiciary have been extensively covered, and the conventional wisdom is that certain elected seats are still considered patronage prizes. Nonetheless, as I observe and participate in the day-to-day business of the court these factors don't seem as apparent in the Bronx today as they did to Feeley in New Haven, though perhaps someone with his background conducting a study of the type he did would still see this as a major factor today.

Finally, police enforcement practices have gone through substantial changes since Feeley conducted his study. The explosion of crack cocaine, the war on drugs, and the attendant enforcement practices - especially sweeps and trespassing enforcement - followed by the quality of life movement of the nineties, have somewhat altered the make-up of the arrestee population and and their charges while prison populations and rates of incarceration have undergone dramatic increases in New York City and the rest of the country.

Nonetheless, despite being an historical account, most of the book's countless observations and case studies of the different actors in the court process and its clear-eyed analysis of adjudications and outcomes in a high volume, low stakes court process ring as true in the Bronx in 2007 as they did in New Haven nearly three decades ago. Most of all, it is a striking portrayal of how those working in the courts, when charged with applying the law within a cultural, social, and ethical context, strive for some kind of substantive or "rough" justice and an informal kind of problem-solving justice by viewing the context of the whole person and striving to "do the right thing." It's a useful handbook for anyone trying to make sense of the chaotic and sometimes bewildering environment of a busy urban courthouse, which can so often seem mysterious and opaque to outsiders and the public.

It's also a reminder of the importance of lower courts, not just for the adjudication they provide, but for the experience of the law they create for citizens. While major cases will occupy the greatest amount of attention in the media and the public mind, more opinions will be shaped by small daily interactions with police officers and personal experiences with a minor criminal case. As Feeley recounts earlier descriptions made a half century before his writing and draws comparisons with his own observations, of "the bad physical surroundings, the confusion, the want of decorum, the undignified offhand disposition of cases at high speed, the frequent suggestion of something working behind the scenes, which characterize the petty criminal court in nearly all our cities," that could still be true today, it is clearly apparent how the court process itself can potentially have a terribly negative impact on public perceptions of the law, government, and authority, especially among those already disposed to believe that society's institutions do not function in their interest.

Update, 03/06/2009: Also, see what Greg has to say, here, about Process is the Punishment, as well as another book by Feeley, Court Reform on Trial, which Greg says is the best book he's read on reforming criminal court.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A QUEST For Excellence

“Move them up, move them down, ship them out”, was a comment that stuck with me at Tuesday’s site visit to the Center for Court Innovation’s newest project, Q.U.E.S.T. (Queens Engagement Strategies for Teens). As callous as it initially sounds, there was an attractive strategy that I would like to bring back to the Bronx. Read more...

Located in a church basement in Jamaica, Queens, QUEST is a two-tiered community based program that supervises youth between the ages of 7-16 who have delinquency cases pending in family court. Unlike the program that I coordinate, the Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC), QUEST functions as a predisposition alternative to detention. What this means is that youth are mandated to QUEST before they ever proceed to fact finding (family court terminology for a trial) and are not required to enter a plea.

Depending on the severity of the crime, criminal history and other relevant factors, youth are mandated to either Tier One, which monitors solely school attendance and curfew compliance or Tier Two, which includes intensive after school supervision up to five days a week in addition to everything in tier one. The after school supervision includes activities such as educational assistance, individual and group counseling and recreational activities that are held at the QUEST site. Participation ends on the 60th day of tier enrollment or on the 120th day of total enrollment if a child participates in both tiers.

If a child in tier two complies with program obligations and is well behaved, they can be “moved down” to tier one where the requirements are less stringent. On the other hand, if a child in tier one is non-compliant, he/she may “move up” to tier two and monitored more closely. Once a child completes their respective tier, they proceed back to court in search of a friendlier disposition.

What seems like a simple idea of creating different tracks is something I think the JAC program could really use. Currently, youth in the JAC program arrested for everything from possession of graffiti tools to armed robbery can be sentenced to probation from anywhere between twelve and twenty-four months. If JAC youth are fully compliant with all aspects of probation, there is the possibility that they are released from probation a few months early. However, nothing is guaranteed and this is not common practice.

The idea of creating more than one track for our probationers to “move up” or “move down” in accordingly would be a great incentive to motivate good behavior. To a fifteen year old, eighteen months of probation feels like a lifetime. As multiple tasks are added to their schedule, there seems to be no end in sight, nor any intermediate target to aim for. As a result, many youth on intensive year or two-year long probation are violated and remanded several times before they start to make any substantial progress. I think one way to combat this is to develop different tracks or tiers with varying levels of supervision and lengths of sentence that JAC youth can traverse depending on their behavior while on probation. That way, it’s easier for them to recognize when they progress or regress, providing them with more attainable goals to aspire to rather than just the daunting task of finishing probation en masse. Individuals are motivated by similar promotions and changes in rank and status in the workplace, in school and other areas and there is no reason that this same principle can’t be applied to JAC youth on probation in the Bronx.

As I continue to work with young people, I learn more and more about how to develop successful programming. As with people of all ages (especially teenagers), motivation is a key factor in finishing everything from school to the work day and in the case of the JAC youth, probation. My visit to QUEST has taught me one more great way to motivate our youth and I hope to implement a comparable tier system in the future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Point

“It’s not like that HBO special, but there are still some women out here none-the-less.” That’s what one Bronx Community Solutions case manager said while on a street outreach with the NYPD’s 41st precinct in the Hunts Point area. Read more....

It’s not the first outreach Bronx Community Solutions has done. This is the third and so far we’ve been able to engage approximately thirty individuals. Most of these women have clear substance abuse and/or medical issues, most are past adolescence and almost all of them have been arrested several times.

“What do you plan on doing with these girls?” That’s the question that was asked of us by one of the night-shift lieutenants. The reality is this initial engagement often may not result into any major life altering change, and none of the women were ready to voluntarily enter into services like hospital-based detox.

One woman we spoke with did state that she needed help getting off the street. After being clean from drugs for a year, she had relapsed about a month ago. She didn't decide to engage in services from us on the spot, but after she was arrested by officers from the 41st precinct the next day, her case was flagged for assessment by Bronx Community Solutions. When she met with our social workers at the courthouse, she was able to get into detox and rehab and she's successfully completing her treatment at the time of this writing.

Women engaged in prostitution are an extremely challenging population with which to work. Successfully helping a woman to get out of the life usually requires an extensive, resource intensive intervention, including obtaining housing and employment. However, as long as women stay on the street, they will continue to risk arrest and jail. Working as social workers in the court is a difficult challenge and we constantly go back and forth between different roles – at one time an advocate and a counselor, at another time an enforcer of court orders and in the role of a kind of probation officer.

It’s a long and difficult road. Mentoring programs like GEMS (Girls Education and Mentoring Services), one program with which we maintain a strong partnership, know that women in their program will often continue to work on the street until they’re ready (financially, logistically, and emotionally) to get out. That's why GEMS starts by building a social support structure before a woman is completely ready to leave the life.

As challenging as it is for courts to meaningfully address the crime of prostitution, it's important for courts to give serious attention to these cases. In communities like Hunts Point residents will tell you that they have a wonderful community, with new parks, historic neighborhoods, and one of the world's largest wholesale food markets, and they're dismayed that the words Hunts Point are only associated with one thing in many people's minds - prostitution. When residents see a notorious local prostitute get arrested and then go back out on the street the very next day, no explanation will reduce their frustration and lack of faith in the courts.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More good reading on Streets Blog

I found more great reading on Streets Blog yesterday. For before and after photos of an inspiring clean-up of a nuisance property in Los Angeles Read more... The main focus on Strets Blog is issues like pedestrian, bicycle, and mass transit improvements, traffic calming, and congestion reduction. However, when they cover projects that improve public spaces and successfully create partnerships between city agencies, non-profit groups, community residents and quasi-governmental organizations like BIDs, it's great inspiration for the kind of projects we're working on in the Bronx. We're constantly thinking about how community service and clean-ups can make a lasting improvement. Residents and stakeholders often pose the question: "Sure, you can clean it up. How can we keep it clean?" Have a look at these before and after photos:

"Rather than fence off the trash-strewn lot beside its building -- a stomping ground for drug-users and prostitutes -- one downtown Los Angeles community center added, instead, a few benches and flowers. Soon, neighbors began to hang out there, and the less desirable denizens vanished." Click here for the full article in GOOD a magazine that focuses on pragmatic, progressive designs and ideas.

Monday, August 13, 2007

SF Community Court Moves Forward (and a radio piece on the foster care system)

Bernice Yeung published an editorial in the San Fransisco Chronicle this Sunday in favor of the new community court planned there. For two sides in the debate on homelessness and a great radio piece on the foster care system Read more...

I think the most interesting detail of the plan in San Fransisco is that planners have decided not to focus on certain crimes, such as public drunkenness and public urination, that are categorized as "quality of life" offenses, deciding to focus instead on misdemeanors such as theft and drug crimes. This is an adaptation of the community court model that recognizes the reality of public opinion in San Fransisco, especially regarding homelessness. However, I wonder if it gives up an essential part of the community court model, the idea that residents and government can and should set and enforce codes of behavior in public places. Click here to read the article.

Here's a different view from Philadelphia: A recent editorial in the Inquirer advocates a "tough love" approach, including Community Courts, for addressing exactly these issues.
"The growing numbers of homeless congregating downtown represent a throwback to a time when Philadelphia was nearly out of money and civic hope. In today's vibrant, growing Center City, people who camp out, use public spaces as their toilet, and press every passer-by for a handout seem even more out of place. They are citizens worthy of respect, compassion and help, but that doesn't equate to letting them do in public whatever their mental illness drives them to do."
Click here for the full article.

Plus, don't miss this radio broadcast. The piece (which aired this past Sunday on the show "This American Life") profiles Anthony Pico, a youth in the California foster care system who has become an accomplished public speaker and is regularly invited to conferences to describe problems in the foster care system to rooms full of social workers, judges and politicians. Despite this, though, Anthony still struggles with challenges that are familiar to many youth in the foster care system.

Finally, stay tuned. Bronx Community Solutions case manager Robert Fagan was recently interviewed for two radio broadcasts here in New York. We'll have the audio up this week.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

City Announces Public Plaza Initiative at new "pocket" park in Dumbo

I thought this post on about a recent public plaza project was interesting. It's a great example of working with city agencies, groups like Ready Willing & Able, and local BIDs and community groups to "green," improve quality of life, and do upkeep and care in a public space.

The reader comments on this post were lively and mostly constructive as well. Click below to read some great comments that were posted about the value for government agencies of finding local partnership.

Finding strong local partners allows the public plaza program to:

1. Draw on the public space management capacity of BIDs (which are quazi government) and other community-based organizations as well as the Parks Dept, and DOT.

2. Develop and grow broad community based partnerships -- Finding the community leaders, building community and city capacity to actually create and evolve the spaces to reflect and celebrate the communities they serve.

3. Design for flexibility - short term experiments, ongoing evaluation, long term visioning.

4. Attract more creative and diverse funding sources to support a broader sense of ownership and inclusiveness I the community - setting up management and funding entities for ongoing management, programming and improvements etc.

5. Be compatible with an upfront and ongoing public process to develop the vision, demand and capacity to grow these spaces in partnership with the city.

These are all thing that the city will not be able to, and should not do alone. For the success of these projects, responsibility needs to be given locally.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

"Become Your Dream"

"Become your dream. What does that mean to you?" That was the question posed to youth offenders during a very special community service project this past week. Every Wednesday Bronx Community Solutions takes a group of clients to World Vision to help sort and stock supplies, but last week World Vision and Bronx Community Solutions paired up with renowned New York City street artist James De La Vega to create a more unique day of service. Read more...

Upon his arrival, De La Vega invited the eight high-school age youth who were participating to sit around him on the floor of World Vision's warehouse, in front of two big, empty white walls. Originally from Spanish Harlem, De La Vega told the youth a little about his background. While he was growing up in Spanish Harlem on welfare, he was offered a scholarship to a private prep school. One of only a few students of color in the entire school, De La Vega graduated and went on to study art at Cornell University.

A "sidewalk philosopher," De La Vega shared many of his personal philosophies and interactive ideas with the youth. He spoke with the youth about how they controlled their destinies and how they could be successful on their own terms, if they lived their dream. As he spoke, he covered the walls with black spray paint in the outline of many of his unique murals and chalk drawings. He then simply said, "add life to it." In other words, he wanted the group to add color to his unique but simple sketches.

The group - which consisted of the young community service participants, World Vision staff, and De La Vega himself - added colors, designs, quotes, and symbols to the wall with brightly colored paint. Over the course of the day, those empty white walls were transformed into an amazingly inspirational and thought provoking mural of vivid colors. These young clients, who were at first hesitant to participate in this project, became very interested and involved in creating this art. Not only did this project give the young clients an opportunity to do something other than lifting boxes, stocking supplies, or cleaning parks, but it also gave them a chance to realize their abilities both to create art and to control their futures.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

We want to hear from you!

If you've attended a meeting of our Community Advisory Board or an outreach event. If you live or work in the Bronx and you want to tell us about what's going on in your neighborhood. If you read our blog. If you work in the courts or law enforcement. If you work in public policy, government or social services. If you get involved in your community...

We'd like to hear your suggestions! Please add a comment to this post if you'd like to share an idea with other readers (click on "comments' at the bottom of this page). If you have a specific idea for a community service project or a social service, please contact us by clicking here or calling (718) 590-8573.