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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 www.streetsblog.org 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.