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Friday, April 27, 2007

Teenage Voices

Our first cycle of Juvenile Accountability Court participants recently marked their completion of the program with a graduation ceremony. You can view a documentary film that they shot and edited about their experiences here on the blog (press play):

Credits go to Levi Little, Ignacio Lara, Ruby Gonzalez, Justin McCoy, Moises Mojica, Christian Morell, Donovan Spradley, Michelle Wilson, and the JAC staff.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Youth Giving Back to Youth

"Giving back to the kids is wonderful and I am having so much fun."

This is what Jermaine Blackett, one of the Bronx Community Solutions Bombers, said while participating in his first voluntary community service project.

As a condition of staying on the team, all of our basketball league participants are required to complete community service. Last Tuesday's youth basketball clinc was our first service project.

The BCS Bombers coached 13 kids ages 9 to 14 years old from SCAN Mullaly Park Recreation Center in basketball fundamentals, including dribbling, passing, shooting, defense and offensive skills.

After organizing these learning stations the Bombers coached a series of games for the kids. The winners of the game received trophies and everyone was given certificates and medals for participating in the event.

After the festivities everyone enjoyed eating pizza together and getting to know each other. One of the best things about this community service project was the interaction between two generations of young people helping each other in positive activities that were fun and therapeutic for both groups.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Social Workers and the Criminal Justice System

"Have social workers become so integrated into the criminal justice system that they no longer advocate for true social justice?"

"Are problem-solving courts becoming BIG BROTHER, with very little room for client self-determination and free will?"

Those are some of the tough questions I received earlier this week at an event I attended at Hunter College's School of Social Work.

The symposium, entitled "Problem Solving Courts: Creating a Social Work Practice, Research and Educational Agenda" brought together social workers, administrators, government officials, mental health agencies, judges and prosecutors for a discussion of the role the social work profession can play in the criminal justice system.

It has become increasingly evident that social workers are an important component of problem-solving courts, even if the social work field has been a little slow to catch up with changing times. The symposium's main objective was to develop a social work educational agenda, one that would help promote research and 'best practices’ within the criminal justice system.

I sat on a panel with John Megaw, deputy project director for the Harlem Community Justice Center and Raye Barbieri, the director of implementation at the Center for Court Innovation.

We talked individually about our current programs and how social work has informed our work. I shared how I had to grow into my role as a social worker working within the constraints of the criminal justice system. There was a time when I would tell my clients that I was not part of the court system, but that I only provided the social services. I honestly believed that I could not be as effective in motivating change if a client associated me with a system that has been viewed as intimidating, adversarial, punitive and coercive.

It’s been ten years and I no longer need that disclaimer. I can be part of this system without feeling like I am foregoing the principals, values and ethics that social work is founded on, especially when this criminal justice system continues to create innovative approaches to social issues.

“As social workers, we are taught to meet our clients where they are at," said Lucille Jackson, the Project Director and Clinical Director of the Brooklyn Mental Health Court. "Well, where they are at is jail, and their lives have become chaotic and unmanageable. This arrest can be used as the intervention they need and would not have other wise received.”

Overall, everyone agreed that social workers who work in these types of settings develop and bring a specific set of skills that are needed to work in problem solving courts. I believe that we social workers, along with other human service providers, play an important role in the courts, and without those skills there would be less successful outcomes all around.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Daily News: "They're courting changes that would benefit fellow teenagers"

"Young people don't understand the judicial process, or their rights in the process"

"When they go to court, they feel they don't have any value."

Since July, members of the Youth Justice Board, a project of the Center for Court Innovation, have been researching the Family Court system in New York City and interviewing judges, lawyers, social workers, agency heads and teenagers who come in contact with the system. They'll be presenting their recommendations soon and this article highlights some of their impressions so far. Bronx Community Solutions is trying out some new approaches with youth in Family Court, so we'll be eager to review the Board's findings.

Click Here for reporting in the Gotham Gazette on the Youth Justice Board's first research project, from 2005, on juvenile reentry. You can read the Board's full report “Stop The Revolving Door: Giving Communities and Youth The Tools To Overcome Recidivism” online, here, or read the 4 page executive summary here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Revolving Door for Addicts Adds to Medicaid Cost

New York has always been a treatment-rich state, spending more money on drug and alcohol treatment than any other state, including more than $300 million a year for drug detoxification services for 30,000 detox patients, according to today's New York Times.

What's shocking is the amount spent on "frequent fliers," individuals who check in and out of hospitals frequently over the course of the year. The state spends $50 million annually on its 500 most expensive patients - individuals who on average have more than a dozen detoxification episodes in a year.

As the article makes clear, the need for housing is a contributing factor for some of these frequent fliers, who find it easier to get hospital-based housing than going through the city's shelter system. It's also clear that some hospitals are failing to make an effective transition for their patients to longer-term treatment, in large part because of financial incentives that allow them to bill more for detoxification services than aftercare.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Graduation, Family Court Style

"I can’t believe I’m finally done!” beamed Ignacio Lara, a young man who had just completed sixty hours of community service.

For a group of six young men, Tuesday evening's graduation ceremony marked an important accomplishment in their lives. Participants in the first cycle of the Juvenile Accountability Court Community Service Learning Program, these young men successfully completed sixty hours of service to their community in the Bronx.

Starting in early February 2007, the Bronx Juvenile Accountability Court (JAC), in partnership with the New York City Department of Probation and Bronx Community Solutions, launched an innovative community service project designed to promote accountability while addressing issues such as truancy, drug use, family problems, criminal mischief, and anger management.

Led by project coordinator Claibourne Henry, Ignacio and his fellow program participants completed a series of meaningful community service projects (such as removing graffiti from a busy Bronx street corner and organizing a clothes drive at World Vision, a local charity) and academic workshops addressing issues such as conflict resolution and peer pressure.

Their final product was a 10-minute film, called "Teenage Voices," that summarized their experiences in the program as well as their thoughts about how to resolve conflict in a positive way.

The film was screened to a rapt audience of judges, probation officers, attorneys, and family members, and was followed by a question and answer session.

Previous to this program, young probationers mandated to complete community service were sent to park sites where they were told to pick up garbage with little supervision or context about why their service was important. Donovan Spradley, another graduate who has had some experience with this previous version of community service, said last night, “This is way better than cleaning up garbage in the park. Over there, they don’t really tell you about why you’re cleaning. In this program, we learn about why doing graffiti is bad and we also learn how to work together as a group.”

His comment about working as a group came out as a major theme among the graduates last night, who all agreed that they learned a lot about how to “work with other people without problems,” as one participant said.

When asked questions during the question-and-answer portion of the program on Tuesday, the participants would turn to their fellow graduates to say “Can I take this one guys?” or “I got this, I got this,” ready with an answer to the question. It was clear from the beginning of the program that the relationships that these young men had built with each other and with the facilitators were strong motivators for getting them to come back each week to complete the program.

“We have experiences in common, so we can share what we know and express our feelings to each other,” said Ignacio.

Because this innovative program is intended to encourage critical thinking about choices, decisions, and consequences, each cycle has a theme. Since most of the participants for the current cycle were found responsible for conflict-related offenses (such as a fight in school or at home), the theme for our pilot program was conflict resolution.

Partnering with City Lore, an arts organization focused on the local culture and history of New York communities, the JAC participants were able to explore their responses to conflict as well as develop new tools for resolving a heated situation without violence. Through theater activities with George Zavala, an experienced teaching artist from City Lore, the young men had a chance to “act out” the pressures of being a teenager, putting their thoughts and experiences into a video (produced and edited by them) that the audience of judges, probation officers, attorneys, and family members viewed last night. [Click here to view “Teenage Voices.”]

These young men and their fellow graduates said that they have been encouraged by the community service project to think more seriously about their futures and what they need to do in order to accomplish their goals. They are also excited about bringing their graduation certificates to their next court appearance to show the judge.

In May, we're set to begin the second cycle of the project on the theme of citizenship, a topic we've already started exploring with our first set of graduates. Not surprisingly, they have a lot they want to share with us.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Taking a chance

Tony* smiled and said, “Thank you, your honor” as Judge Gonzalez handed him his certificate of completion.

“No Tony, thank you," the Judge replied. "Now that I gave you a chance and you were successful, this has paved the way for me to give chances to others.”

For problem-solving courts like drug courts and mental health courts, this type of judicial encouragement is nothing new. What is new is applying these problem-solving principles in a busy court system that arraigns 50,000 annual misdemeanor cases.

Tony was one of those cases. He had multiple arrests on his record, bringing Tony closer to a cycle of arrest and short-term jail.

Yet when he appeared in arraignment after an arrest for jumping the turnstile (attempting to get into the city's subway system without paying the fare), Judge Gonzalez saw more than just the instant matter and prior arrest record.

She saw a kid in need of intervention. Tony, like so many Bronx Community Solutions clients, has a complicated life. Eighteen, unemployed with a learning disability, out of school for four years, Tony was living on the streets for four months prior to being reunited with his estranged mother.

Working with Bronx Community Solutions, the judge mandated Tony to 20 days at a youth program, The Door with a 45 day jail alternative if he did not comply.

The Door is a youth development that offers young people 12 to 21 one-on-one tutoring, mental health counseling, job-training and group recreational activities. Tony went every day, even after completing his mandatory 20 days.

As Tony stood before the judge, he gleamed with anticipation, knowing that this was a huge accomplishment. “So you’re back and I have been hearing so many good things about you,” said Judge Gonzales. Almost instantaneously, and with a huge smile, Tony burst out, “Thank you for giving me another chance, your honor.”

Some critics may say that the criminal justice system should not be a place to resolve social and or behavioral issues. In an ideal world, individuals would seek out needed services on their own. The unfortunate reality is that individuals like Tony often don’t know how to access these services and instead languish in the criminal justice system. The good news is a little push is sometimes all a person needs.

Just ask Tony, he continues to receive vocational tutoring that will assist him toward acquiring his GED, as well as one-on-one counseling sessions. His mother is very happy that he has completed his criminal mandate.

Tony is not the only one to benefit from the referral. Whether you are a judge, attorney, court clerk or court officer, working in a busy urban courtroom can be a tough grind. It’s easy to get cynical about human nature when you see the same case day after day. That’s why positive moments with individuals like Tony are so important.

*Tony is not his real name.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Santa Monica: Community Courts Gaining Momentum

The Santa Monica Lookout News reports that elected officials, court administrators and community partners came together last week for a day-long conference to assess the progress of the pilot Homeless Court located there. This article highlights how much attention the Red Hook Community Justice Center received, and also shows how eager policymakers are to experiment with new approaches to the problem of homelessness.