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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More Than a "Bird's Eye" View

Google just added a "Street View" feature to their Google Maps application. Now you can seemlessly navigate through street level photographs all over several major cities.

Click here to see the lot in West Farms where we did Team Up to Clean Up. (These photos were taken a few months ago - you can see the grafitti and trash that was on the lot before our clean up.) If you click on the arrows in the upper left hand you can look all around (360 degrees) or zoom in. See that yellow line floating in the middle of the street? Click on the "East" or "West" arrows and you can take a virtual walk up or down the block.

Here is an interesting article about a system developed by an L.A.-based company that uses digital photography, GPS navigation, and a computer database to track grafitti crime.

Friday, May 25, 2007

NYT: Klein to Overhaul Alternative Schools Programs to Deter Potential Dropouts

Amid recent news that New York City's high school graduation rate improved in the last year, but still remains shockingly low (at 50%), School Chancellor Joel Klein announced today a major overhaul of the city's alternative schools, drop-out prevention efforts, and GED programs. Several alternative school programs, mini-schools aimed at students considered most at risk of abandoning school because of problems like poverty, prison, drug addictions or pregnancy, that the City says are not successful, will be phased out. The plan also called for opening new “referral service center” in each borough, and changes to city-sponsored GED programs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

News from Britain and the Bronx

In Britain operations began this month on their third community court, to be based in Nottingham (after Salford and Liverpool). You can read about it here, on the BBC website. This article: "How the Young Poor Measure Poverty in Britain: Drink, Drugs and Their Time in Jail" which appeared a few months ago in the NYT, is worth the read.

Back in the Bronx our neighbors and valued partners the Bronx School of Law Government and Justice have just been crowned as the mock trial state champions. Their team beat out some of the New York City's most elite high schools to become the city-wide champions, and they've just returned from Albany where they won the state finals! You can read about it in the Daily News.

Finally, where did hip-hop start? Most people say it started in the Bronx. According to the New York Times, legendary pioneer Clive Cambell (a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc), wants to get a little more specific. He says that the parties he threw starting back in 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the community room in the basement of this apartment building near the Cross-Bronx Expressway, were the very beginning. The enormous energy of hip-hop would soon be unleashed on the entire globe and define popular culture for decades. Does it all go back to this building? And what does that have to do with gentrification and affordable housing in 2007? More below.

The people living in the building now are hoping that its history might merit inclusion of the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Like other low and moderate income New Yorkers, they're worried that gentrification and rising rents will force them out of the neighborhoods and the buildings where they've been living for years. It's a novel strategy: landmark status is usually reserved for structures that are at least 50 years old (it isn't), and it usually just protects the facade and structure, not the use of the inside space. Residents say the building has unique and extraordinary significance that should receive special protection that would maintain it as affordable housing. I hope hip-hop historians and legal scholars are both enjoying this debate.

Update 03/07/2008: Residents won. They'll keep the building, and it will stay affordable. Article.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Expanded DNA Testing

My latest column on the promise and perils of DNA testing is available at Gotham Gazette.

You can view the article here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

O.T. - Top Coach

"I was a hard head spoiled kid, like the kids you guys work with and they remind me of myself when I was growing up". This was O.T.s’ response when asked why he enjoyed being the Bronx Bomber’s referee.

However, he was not only an adolescent dealing with familiar difficulties inner city youth deal with he was also a star basketball player. As a student in Roosevelt High School he was a luminary player and at one point "averaged 28 points and ten assists." He then went to Benedict College, at Columbia South Carolina on a full basketball scholarship and he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education.

O.T.’s dreams of playing professional basketball never panned out but despite this setback he stayed involved with basketball and utilized his talent and skills to give back to the youth in his community. He has established a community basketball league that plays other Bronx teams. In the process of organizing a tournament, he came across Bronx Community Solutions Bronx Bombers basketball team and volunteered to be a referee.

The rest is history. His volunteer work as a referee has become vital to the stability of the Bronx Bombers. He is a mentor that provides support and guidance for the team participants and his wealth of knowledge of community resources is invaluable. He provides Bronx Community Solutions case managers with information about upcoming community youth events. He also informs our office about employment resources for adolescents. He even refers youth to our office for assistance (i.e. job training, GED training …). Additionally, he encourages youth to be in school and makes the best of their athletic skills by assisting college bound adolescents to receive scholarships. "It is hard to make it out here without an education so these kids need all the support they can get."

People usually believe that the only way to influence change is to be part of an established community organization but anyone can make positive changes in their community. O.T. is an example of how individuals from the community can influence change and motivate youth to engage and remain in positive activities.

He has a genuine interest in the development and progress of his community and the individuals in it. He is driven to work with youth because "many are lost and have minimal guidance" and basketball is his vehicle to motivate them to make positive changes and to recognize that they have potential to succeed.

Simply stated by O.T., "Life is like basketball because to be in it you have to do some teamwork."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Editorials from SF, and "Times Square in Venezuela?"

There were two new editorials this Sunday in the San Fransisco Chronicle on the Justice Center proposed for the Tenderloin District: one by the editorial board and one written jointly by Mayor Gavin Newsome and the city District Attorney Kamala D. Harris.

Further afield, I was fascinated by this article (from the New York Times). For the past few months the government in Caracas has been clearing street vendors supposedely associated with black-market sales and crime from an area along the Sabana Grande.

It contains so many of the same elements as the story of the "New" Times Square in New York City -- cleaning out a central district for arts and commerce were minor crime and street life have come to be perceived as emblematic of larger lawlessness and neglect -- but with particularly Venezuelan political, social, and economic forces at play.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Team Up To Clean Up

"Are you ready to start planting?"

"Yeah, let's put in the vegetables first."

The Law Enforcement Explorers, young people volunteering at the 48th Precinct in the Bronx, were ready to get their hands dirty working on a community garden as part of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion's Team Up to Clean Up event.

The River Garden project was just one of two projects Bronx Community Solutions was helping with on a very busy Saturday.

In addition to organizing 27 young volunteers for the garden project, we were asked by the Borough President to help clean a nearby, garbage strewn and rocky lot in a area known for heavy drug and prostitution activity.

Borough President Carrion, responding to community concerns, had successfully closed down a nuisance property across the street from the lot, which had helped reduce some of the problems. Still, the lot itself was a dangerous and dirty place that needed to be cleaned.

Dumping on the site was substantial, and this was going to be a tough job. We put our community service operation into high gear: scheduling clients quickly, obtaining supplies, and getting permission to paint from the the owners of a graffiti covered building adjoining the lot. In addition to about eight mandated clients, we recruited five explorers and a member of the local community board to help out with the cleaning and painting.

Once everything was in place, we were lucky enough to have a beautiful day and did a ton of work. It was a pleasure to meet so many community members and city officials who had come out to show their support, and for our clients it was a chance to feel like they were part of something positive and important.

Borough President Carrion visited the site and spoke with some of our mandated clients, thanking them for the work they were doing.

Back at the garden, the young explorers planted perennials, annuals and vegetables in flower beds donated to us by Ms. Nessie, the garden President who's run the River Garden for over 20 years. They also painted a garden tool shed and pulled a lot of overgrown weeds.

All in all, it was a good day's work.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Keeping Neighborhood Parks Clean

How do neighborhoods keep their parks safe, clean and maintained? According to the New York Times, park proponents are raising this question after the opening of two new parks in one of the south Bronx's grittiest, most industrial neighborhoods.

From the Times:

“We got the parks, that is great and dandy, but how are we going to maintain them?” said Majora Carter, the founder of the environmental group Sustainable South Bronx, who was among the first to envision a riverside park on what had been a dump. “There is a fundamental problem we have had for a long time: unless it is a big, sophisticated project with value to tourists or businesspeople, it’s forgotten. Our parks only serve the people here. But people up here need to know they have access to open space.”

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Seeing the Court from the Inside

“Have you ever made a judgment and then felt bad about it the next day? Like it was the wrong decision?” asked Henry, a seventh-grade student at the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice.

“Yes,” answered Judge Clark V. Richardson, the Bronx Family Court Supervising Judge. “And it is a horrible feeling.”

Judge Richardson continued: “You always try, as a judge, to mull over your decisions when you make them. But there are some difficult situations – and you might change your mind about something that seemed like the right decision at the time.”

This exchange happened Monday as part of Law Day, an annual event held nationwide designed to educate the public about the court system.

Our event in the Bronx was entitled “10 Things You Might Not Have Known About the Law,” and we hosted 50 7th graders from the nearby high school for a daylong session that included a court tour, a Jeopardy-style quiz competition, and a lunchtime panel with Judge Richardson, Judge Eugene Oliver (the Deputy Administrative Judge of the Criminal Division Bronx Supreme Court), Nestor Ferriero (chief of the Narcotics Bureau of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office), Robin Steinberg (Executive Director of Bronx Defenders, a public defense organization) and Court Officer Rachel Villarini.

The students' first step was to visit an arraignment court part at the Bronx Criminal Court, where the students observed a number of court cases.

It was an exciting opportunity for the students, who are used to the Law and Order courtrooms they see on television. “We saw an abuse case, and we saw a stolen identity case, and we saw a trespassing case! It was cool!” recounted Elizabeth, her eyes ablaze.

Elizabeth’s enthusiastic comment not only reflected her affinity for the law, but her desire to see real courts in action. Her visit was made richer by a conversation with the supervising court officer in the part, by a running commentary from Bronx Community Solutions resource coordinators, and by a special discussion with the judge on the bench.

After their court observation, the students participated in Court Jeopardy, an activity designed by Bronx Community Solutions staff to test their knowledge about court players, court terms, and common offenses in a fun way. Asked to work in teams to get the right answer, the students made it clear how much they already knew about the court system, answering questions about the roles played by prosecutors, defense attorneys and court officers in the courtroom.

Back at the school for a pizza lunch and panel discussion, the students had a more intimate opportunity to ask the questions they had built up during their tour. For an hour, they asked questions about the number of cases judges hear in a day, about the craziest thing that has ever happened in the courtroom, and about what it is like to be in jail. There were also some very sophisticated questions, getting at themes such as defending somebody who you believe to be guilty.

“Well, I think of it this way,” answered Robin Steinberg, Executive Director of the Bronx Defenders. “Imagine the worst thing that you have ever done. Now imagine that you walk into a classroom and the teacher introduces you to the entire class just by telling that one thing that you did. Do you think that would be fair?”

A chorus of “no’s” ensued.

“Well that is what it is like for somebody who is charged with a crime, guilty or not, to go before a judge. What makes me get out of bed in the morning is to think of my clients as whole people – and to be able to portray them as good sisters, good brothers, good parents, or good children. That means that I have to get to know my clients well and be able to speak about them in all of their complexity as humans. And that is how I defend somebody who I think is guilty.”

When asked, at the end of the panel, whether there were any misconceptions about the law that panelists wanted to clarify with the students, each person had something to say.

“It’s better to be smart than cool. Choose your friends carefully, because the law will hold you responsible for things you may not be aware of. If you are in the same car as somebody with a gun in the glove compartment, even if you do not know about it, you are getting arrested,” said Nestor Ferreiro.

Court Officer Rachel Villarini’s comment was a little bit different: “Just like any group of human beings, there are good law enforcement officers out there and there are bad ones. If you have a bad experience with an officer, don’t think that we are all like that. We are compassionate and we care about people too.”

Judge Eugene Oliver gave some advice that he has given to his own son. “If the police stop you for any reason, cooperate with them. Even if you feel angry about being stopped, it is in your best interest to comply with their requests. We see people arrested all the time for resisting arrest or disorderly conduct. You will save yourself a lot of trouble and a horrible night in jail if you reply to the police respectfully.”

The students’ attentive silence indicated that they were listening hard to these words of advice. And the hands that shot up in the air as soon as he was finished speaking indicated that there is a lot more talking to do. While many adults bemoan the behaviors and attitudes that they see from young people today, we were reminded yesterday of the incredible thoughtfulness, desire to learn, and optimism in many youth.

As our panelists agreed after the discussion, our future is bright if these students become the leaders of tomorrow.

More News from San Fransisco

There's more news from San Fransisco about a plan for a Community Court in the Tenderloin district based on the Midtown Community Court model. This article, which ran on the front page of the Chronicle this past Sunday, profiles the Midtown Court extensively and also shows more indications that the proposal for the new Court is controversial.

Read below for a round-up of other problem-solving justice news from Vancouver, Melbourne, and Buffalo, NY.

The Downtown Community Court in Vancouver, B.C., which is scheduled to open later this year just launched an excellent website.

The Community Court in Melbourne, Australia just had its official opening, and you can read about it here.

And finally, right here in New York State, the first every Gambling Treatment Court opened in a suburb of Buffalo. Based on a drug court model, defendants who are commiting crimes to support their gambling addiction are screened into the Court. If they accept counseling and judicial monitoring, they get the chance to stay out of jail. You can read about it here in the New York Times.