Snow Day

We had assumed that Bronx Community Solutions was the only project of its kind in the country.

Imagine our surprise when we found out that the Buffalo Criminal Court had been doing the same thing for the last fifteen years.

Not even a blizzard kept me from checking out the Buffalo project a few weeks ago.

For the last fifteen years, Hank Pirowski has run the C.O.U.R.T.S. (Courts Outreach Unit: Referral and Treatment Services) project, which links defendants to services such as drug treatment, mental health treatment, medical care, anger management and family counseling.

As with Bronx Community Solutions, any judge in Buffalo can refer clients to the program.

The C.O.U.R.T.S program averages about 6,000 referrals a year, made possible by partnerships of over 130 community-based service providers. Referrals to services such as inpatient detoxification, rehabilitation, ongoing drug treatment, mental health counseling, and medical treatment are made on-site.

Like Hank fifteen years ago, we’re trying to stay on the cutting edge of large scale court reform and problem-solving justice while keeping programming costs low. So in order to link offenders to quick and meaningful services, we also must rely on community-based partnerships to provide credible and reliable services. More philosophically, we share the same goals – to weave a community court model into the fabric of a traditional court.

When asked how the C.O.U.R.T.S program maintains its visibility, dependability and vital court support, Mr. Pirowski said, “It’s simple, never say NO to a judge. Try to provide a service that all judges can use.” By creating this universal service, judges begin to rely on the program beyond its available sentencing options and the program becomes more transparent and accessible to everyone. For example, C.O.U.R.T.S. makes toxicology screenings available to all judges.

What's also unique about C.O.U.R.T.S. is how strong the court's relationship is with local treatment providers. Since Hank controls all of the treatment referrals coming out of the courthouse, he can hold treatment providers accountable for their services. Some agencies are so vested in the C.O.U.R.T.S. program that they donate the most vital resource of all – a staff member to serve as a liaison to the courts and the program. By brokering with invested social service agencies, Hank has expanded his staff, which means more visibility in court and overall availability to judges.

Like C.O.U.R.T.S., we’re trying to expand our reach without necessarily spending big bucks. For example, FEGS Health and Human Services System has assigned a staff member, Judah Zuger, to serve as an on-site employment specialist.

We're also always looking for new ways to meet the needs of judges in the Bronx. For example, we recently created the Repeat Offender Program, which provides additional supervision and services to individuals who fail to comply with court orders and continue to re-offend.

Creating all of these vested relationships doesn’t happen over night. Hank has been in the laboratory for 15 years, and is still searching for ways to do things better. “Never be content,” Hank advises, and he continues to ask his staff, “What else can we be doing?”

As a new program in the Bronx, we’ve had to work hard to build our credibility and we often rely on statistics to demonstrate our successes. What Hank showed me is the importance of relationship building. We heard it over and over again during our visit to Buffalo - “Patience, persistence and longevity” is the recipe for a sustainable and successful program. As we go forward with year three of our program, this is a mantra to take back with us to the Bronx.