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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Bring on the Bombers

"Whew! That was the most intense game we've played!"

These were the words of Officer Warren Thompson, a Community Affairs officer at the 46th Precinct in the Bronx, after his team's one-point victory over the Bronx Community Solutions Bombers. (For pictures, click here. Click on slide images for captions.)

The Bombers started off strong, keeping up a lead until the last quarter of the game, when the police team was finally able to trump the Bombers' fast footwork, coordinated passing, and nothing-but-net three-pointers. The final score was 42-41.

Working together for two months, the Bombers have developed from a collection of individuals looking for a game into a unit of players who have learned to rely on each other's skills.

This is an important part of the program, not only because it will help the team win games in the future, but also because it teaches useful real-life skills about teamwork, self-discipline, and good sportsmanship.

It also helps bring together two groups that have a history of negative interactions: law enforcement officials and urban youth. During the game, team members congratulated each other on making good plays and maintained a competitive but respectful dynamic. Afterwords, everyone shook hands. Officer Thompson had the last word: "Wow. Those young guys are good!"

Next week, the Bombers play a team from FEGS (Federation Educational and Guidance Services), one of Bronx Community Solution's partner agencies. A simple suggestion for the FEGS team: bring your A game, because you're about to get bombed!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Role of the Judge

“The way a judge interacts with defendants [has] a tremendous impact,” wrote Hartford Community Court Coordinator Chris Pleasanton on Court Builders, a forum for community court leaders from across the country.

Chris’s comment came as part of a discussion about the importance of judicial interaction with defendants, a particularly interesting issue for us at Bronx Community Solutions.

Evidence suggests that defendants are more likely to comply with court orders if they feel that they have been treated fairly. Simple behaviors such as making eye contact, clearly explaining court mandates and allowing defendants to tell their side of the story are important factors in improving a defendants sense of fairness, and the ultimate likelihood of their success, according to to recent studies.

The principle that judicial behavior matters has been well established in problem-solving courts created across the country. It’s become almost a mantra, as Gerianne Abriano, an Assistant District Attorney at the Red Hook Community Justice Center writes, that "participants are elated by praise from the judge and are motivated to do better when the judge is angry.”

This sentiment was echoed by folks in Seattle, Hartford and Indianapolis who agreed that the judges in their problem-solving courthouses take on many roles on the bench, but ultimately share one common characteristic – they possess genuine compassion and concern for defendants.

The importance of direct judicial interaction with defendants can be a harder sell in a centralized court setting with its huge caseloads and limited opportunities for ongoing engagement. Unlike specialty courts, where a judge might meet regularly with a defendant, judges in traditional courts only see defendants if they are re-arrested or returned to court on a warrant – hardly an environment for positive reinforcement.

Still, there are a number of reasons why judicial interaction with defendants is important in a centralized court setting. In an environment where defendants are quickly shuffled through the system, there are plenty of barriers to compliance. Defendants often do not know where they are supposed to go, what they've been mandated to, or that they may go to jail if they don't do it.

We've found that support from the bench is crucial in enforcing immediacy and encouraging compliance. When our judges take the time to clearly explain to defendants the conditions of their mandate and consequences for failure, they are more likely to report to us right away. Not only does this immediacy improve their chance of completion, but more importantly, it quickens their connection to helpful services.

Although we make every attempt to bring defendants into compliance with their court orders and remind them of the consequences for failure, our efforts are sometimes unsuccessful without judicial support. In one courtroom in the Bronx where defendants are returned on warrants issued for failing to comply with their court mandates, defendants take their more mandates seriously after being admonished by the presiding judge. “I thought he [the judge] was going to put me in jail, I’m going to do it this time.”

The good news is that little things matter a lot. Explaining a mandate in plain English can be just as important as congratulating a defendant for completing a drug treatment program. And it’s not just the judge who matters – in the Bronx everyone in the courthouse plays a role, from the clerks who prepare the paperwork to the court officers who direct offenders to our offices.

Before, when defendants were sentenced to community service they often times left the courtroom without knowing where they were supposed to report. By simply providing clear instruction sheets and taking the time to review defendants paperwork with them, clerks in the Bronx are now contributing to a defendants chance of success. And the court officers are even taking it a step further.

“I’ll take him over, I want to talk to him” offered the sergeant in arraignments in reference to a young man waiting to be brought to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office. Sergeant Hill likes reading young defendant’s what’s know as the “riot act” – an encouraging lecture from a person in uniform. Part nature and part Bronx Community Solutions influence, Sergeant Hill now takes an active role in impacting these young defendant’s lives as problem-solving principles become part of the fabric of the conventional Bronx courthouse.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A New Community Service Approach

Yesterday's community service project at World Vision's Bronx-based Storehouse was quite an experience for our crew.

At first, when we arrived, the crew was resistant: they knew that they were going to work, but they didn't understand what the purpose of their labor was.

Everytime that we go, World Vision shows our crew a video about their projects all over the world - mostly taking care of kids in need, children who really don't have anything. They also assist people in need of supplies for school or work, through their relationships with non-profits in the Bronx.

After they showed the video, you could see the change on the faces of the crew members. They were nodding their heads and from that moment on, I knew that they understood the purpose of their service to the community.

When they found out that they were going to make kits for people who care for AIDS patients in Africa, they took a lot of joy and pride in what they were doing. Each kit had ten different items (such as notebooks, pens, washclothes, vaseline, anti-fungus cream, packs of cotton, and flashlights, etc.) and we made 800 kits! It was quite an experience for everyone, including myself.