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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Problem Solving Over a Hand Shake

From Coordinator of Court Operations Elizabeth Taylor

“I care” was the exclamation of the judge as the defendant approached the bench for an off the record, heart to heart conversation. On September 28th 2009, as James (not his real name) walked out of the courtroom, he emotionally uttered “that judge really cares about me.” Click here to read more.

Yesterday saw the culmination of yet another collaborative problem solving effort between Bronx Criminal Court and Bronx Community Solutions. In December 2008, James, a foster care youth, was arrested for a marijuana violation. Coupled with the death of his mother and a mental health diagnosis, his arrest charge was typical, but his story was not. At the arraignment hearing, the judge sought the expertise of a Resource Coordinator. Her request was for Bronx Community Solutions to assess James and determine the appropriateness of a longer term alternative to incarceration option. While court resumed, the Resource Coordinator assessed the offender and recommended a 3 month sentence to a dual diagnosis substance abuse and mental health program.

Over the last 9 months, the sentencing judge took a special interest in James’ progress, relying heavily on Bronx Community Solutions for outreach, tracking and court reporting. James’ attendance was consistent, but he continued to test positive for marijuana. In March 2009, only a couple of days before the program would’ve been complete, he absconded from his group home and had an episodic break. Shortly thereafter, he was admitted to a psychiatric adolescent unit and was eventually placed with a foster mother. On June 27th, because of his recent drug history, James was re-sentenced to Vertex, an outpatient substance abuse program. At his June 27th compliance court date, the judge was vehement with James about following through with the program. Despite of the Judge’s firm words, James failed to report to both Bronx Community Solutions and Vertex.

At his September 28th compliance date, fully expecting to go to jail, James was greeted by a sympathetic judge: “You have to do it for yourself,” the judge said. “Do you want the help that Bronx Community Solutions can offer?” As James began to explain why he did not attend the program, the judge interjected with compassion and understanding. The judge replaced the expected harsh admonishment with encouragement. Turning to me, the judge said, “I can not do anything from here, I need you guys to do it.” I was able to put an agreed upon plan of action in place. The judge shook James’ hand, wished him the best of luck, and reminded him how much she cared. I looked at the judge and reassuringly stated that I would get the ball rolling. After the judge thanked me for the efforts of Bronx Community Solutions, the case was adjourned. While he was walking out of the court room, James felt a new sense of self reliance and awareness. He stated that “the judge is right…I’m 18 now and have to get my stuff right.”

James is scheduled, along with his foster mother, for a Vertex intake appointment on October 6th, 2009. Today, I had an opportunity to follow-up with the judge who continues to express support and appreciation for Bronx Community Solutions’ flexibility and in court services. This case continues to shine a light on Bronx Community Solutions’ ability to effectively promote problem-solving justice and provide real solutions for the courts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The "Dirty Dozen"

In January, Mayor Bloomberg announced plans to target a "Dirty Dozen" of the city's worst quality-of-life offenders during his State of the City Address. An item in today's Daily News reports on the implementation of that plan to target the city's 67 most prolific low-level offenders (slightly more than twelve from each borough). The City's been running the numbers, and they're now in the process of putting in place a system to flag these cases the next time they're arrested. Thanks to Danny Abriano for finding this article.

This new initiative is an enhancement of Operation Spotlight, a city-wide initiative that puts a prominent stamp on the file of anyone who's had three or more misdemeanor arrests in the past year (there's actually a formula that's a little bit more complicated than that), to bring the offenders record to the attention of prosecutors. You can view reports on Operation Spotlight here.

It seems that there are 693 people city-wide who've been arrested more than 10 times in the past two years. Among the "Dirty Dozen" each person has been convicted an average of 16.8 times.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Report from the Field: Prostitution

From Resource Coordinator Carrie Potts:

Since I began working here in June, one of my focuses has been on implementing Bronx Community Solutions' ongoing prostitution initiative which aims to identify and assist women engaged in the lifestyle of prostitution here in the Bronx who come in contact with the justice system. Click Here to read more.

Before we started working to address the issue, the options available to judges when they were presented with an arrest for prostitution were very limited: either release the defendant, sentence them to a short amount of time in jail, or in some cases, order them to participate in drug treatment as an alternative to jail. As social workers, we're aware that for many women involved in prostitution, leaving the lifestyle is a difficult and complicated process that requires peer counseling and supportive services including safe housing, employment training, and financial counseling, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment in some cases.

Recently, we worked with two cases that encouraged us to keep pressing our efforts, as they have been neglected by the criminal justice system for so long. Both of these cases presented unique challenges, so our staff pulled together as a team to design creative sentences that addressed each client’s individual needs.

Our first client spoke of being ready to get out of the life, but it was clear that her substance abuse issues were a major roadblock for her, and contributed to her lifestyle. We were able to connect her to a 28-day detoxification/rehabilitation facility, through Liberty Behavioral Management Corporation, which would allow her to stabilize herself mentally and physically in a medically safe and emotionally supportive environment. In order to remain engaged after her completion of the rehabilitation program, also made sure that her sentence included four days of follow-up counseling here at Bronx Community Solutions on-site social service department. These will consist of not only groups, but also one-on-one meetings with a case manager, to allow for more candid conversations on how her life is progressing, now that she has completed a 28 day program.

Bronx Community Solutions has worked hard to establish and maintain solid relationships with our social service partners, so that when their services are needed, they are available and clients won’t have to wait. For this client, this was a vital part of the process. The facility was able to pick her up from the court house and take her straight to their campus within a few hours of her release from court. As she was leaving the courthouse, she was reflecting on the last few days, and stated that she was really glad she was going to the facility because it would allow for some clarity. She realized that if she were going home, she would fall back into the same habits, which would result in another arrest, and the cycle of the streets to jail and back to the streets would only continue.

Our second client was known to the police precinct in which she was arrested, as she has been in the life for many years. Upon meeting with her, it became clear that there were many underlying issues that had never been addressed, but were clearly impacting her life on a daily basis. The most important issue to address was her mental health diagnosis. She reported that she had been on psychiatric medications for many years, but never had a steady treatment provider but instead, went to a city emergency room for medication. The secondary issue was her use of alcohol, which was often used as a form of self-medication in lieu of psychiatric medications. Based upon this assessment, our treatment plan focused on what it would take for her to lead a more productive and healthy life—namely a steady connection with a psychiatrist as well as substance abuse treatment. After discussion with the district attorney, her defense attorney and the judge, all parties were in agreement that another jail sentence would not help this client, but that now was the time for an intensive intervention which Bronx Community Solutions would monitor for compliance. We were able to connect this client with an out patient treatment program that would address both her mental health and substance abuse at the same time.

Both of these women have taken an incredibly difficult and important first step towards getting out of the lifestyle of prostitution. They both recognized that there are many factors contributing to their involvement with the criminal justice system and Bronx Community Solutions was able to play an active role in introducing alternatives to incarceration. We will continue to design creative sentences which will address a wide range of issues faced by our clients, particularly within this subset of our population.

As we head into the Fall, our focus on prostitution is beginning a new chapter, which will utilize all of our services and partnerships in an effort to reach out to this population so that they know alternatives are available.

We also hope that our efforts will help improve public safety and neighborhood quality of life. Several police precincts have recently reached out to us for assistance with increased problems related to prostitution activity, and it's our role to ensure that arrests lead to meaningful outcomes instead of just a trip through central bookings and then back out onto the street and the same situation, and by coordinating our community service efforts to clean up the dumping, neglect, and graffiti at hotspots where prostitution is occuring.

Report from the Field: Mental Health

Last February, Bronx Community Solutions began screening all of its clients, as part of the assessment that each individual receives after they've been sentenced to the program, to identify possible mental health issues for which assistance might be needed.

We're hopeful that we can assist many individuals who otherwise would fall through the cracks, and also excited that we may be uniquely able to learn important information about the mental health issues of low-level offenders who are being cycled in and out of the justice system. We've learned some very interesting things so far. Click Here to read more.

From Case Manager Amber Pettit:

Beginning February 24, 2009, a brief mental health screening tool was added to the Bronx Community Solutions intake assessment for the purpose of identifying clients with mental illnesses. The tool consists of a set of questions pertaining to a client’s history of mental health treatment, currently utilized by the Bronx TASC program, and the GAINS Brief Jail Mental Health Screen to assess the client’s current mental health status.

Our pilot project is a result of recommendations made by a joint City/State panel on the issue of mental health in the justice system and announced at a press conference by Mayor Bloomberg. The June 2008 Report of the New York State/New York City Mental Health-Criminal Justice Panel recommended that New York City should introduce mental health screening in the Bronx Criminal Court to identify individuals sentenced to brief community-based programs who may benefit from mental health assessments, intensive engagement, and voluntary case management.

The goal of this pilot initiative is to use Bronx Community Solutions’ brief period of mandatory engagement to promote longer-term voluntary participation in mental health services that may help the individual to not re-offend.

Every individual whose responses to the screening indicate that they may be dealing with a mental health issue is scheduled to participate in group or individual mental health counseling as part of their mandate. In some cases, if a client appears to be in crisis, they will be escorted directly to meet with a case manager at our on-site social service department for immediate assistance.

During this initial implementation period (February 2009-July 2009), Bronx Community Solutions has identified 367 clients with current or past mental health problems. Of these 367 clients, 246 completed the mental health treatment readiness group and 138 individual counseling sessions were conducted.

The preliminary data that we've gathered and analyzed indicates that compared to Bronx Community Solutions’ clients as a whole, the individuals who are responding as possibly having mental health issues are more likely to be women, more likely to be older, less likely to be black and more likely to be white or Hispanic, more likely to admit to substance abuse, and more likely to be currently or previously homeless.

What we’ve learned during our individual counseling sessions suggest that a majority of these clients are, in fact, suffering from co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders. Most clients are aware of their psychiatric diagnoses and have extensive, albeit sporadic, treatment histories. Many are unable to distinguish mental health symptoms from substance abuse problems and lump both into their “illness.” The clients tend to be frustrated with the level of care they have received in the past and the accessibility of services within the Bronx. Many have no medical insurance or have let their Medicaid lapse and lack the proper documents needed to re-apply.

The good news is that in many cases, with encouragement and assistance from Bronx Community Solutions' case managers, these individuals have been able to successfully re-connect with treatment and other services. They may experience future setbacks, but in each of these cases an arrest that might have otherwise led to a short stay in jail or a few days spend cleaning up a local park have been leveraged into a re-engagement with services and a break from the pattern of minor arrests and short jail sentences that is common for many of these individuals.

A case study of one of our clients (their name has been changed), tells part of the story about mental health issues affecting the low-level offenders in the criminal justice system:

Ms. Perez has a history of almost a dozen arrests over the past two decades for prostitution, drug possession, petty larceny and trespassing. Most recently she was arrested for prostitution and sentenced to two days of social service with Bronx Community Solutions. After he intake assessment was completed and her responses to questions about mental health indicated that she was dealing with significant mental health issues, she was scheduled to attend a group session on mental health treatment readiness and an individual counseling session with a case manager.

During her individual counseling session, Ms. Perez disclosed that she has suffered from mental illness since early childhood when she was diagnosed with Tourettes Syndrome. She endured ridicule from family and friends which eventually led to self-mutilating behavior, for which she was hospitalized in her late teens. As an adult she has been treated sporadically for various anxiety and mood disorders. She admits she is often non-compliant with her medication regime and finds it difficult to maintain a consistent therapy schedule. Even more difficult for her is establishing a relationship with new treatment providers as feelings of anxiety and apprehension often overwhelm her in unfamiliar settings. Recently, Ms. Perez had been receiving therapeutic and psychiatric services from a community based service provider but she was recently discharged due to missing two consecutive appointments which violated a condition stipulated in a “contract” that was created to address her poor attendance. The case manager and the client spoke at length about the importance of therapy and together created a list of strategies to improve her attendance. As one of her absences was a result of her recent arrest, the case manager provided Ms. Perez with car-fare and documentation to bring to her program in hopes of being re-admitted.

When Ms. Perez returned to Bronx Community Solutions for her group counseling session the following week she provided documentation that she was indeed re-dmitted to her program and will see a therapist next week. She was also informed that her Medicaid was no longer active and that she must take steps to remedy this before her appointment. The Bronx Community Solutions case manager provided Ms. Perez with car-fare and directions to the appropriate Medicaid office in order to facilitate this process. At this time, Ms. Cruz is still receiving services at her program and has not been rearrested.

Reports From the Field

It's been a busy time at Bronx Community Solutions. In the past few months, we've hired two new resource coordinators and two new case managers, each of whom brings great experience and enthusiasm to our team.

We've been taking a targeted approach to some of the more difficult and complicated types of low-level offenses and particular populations. Since February, we've dramatically expanded our efforts to comprehensively screen all of our clients for mental health issues and connect clients with mental health concerns to needed services. We've also been working to address prostitution, through outreaches, flagging, tracking, assessing, and making sentencing recommendations, and targeting community service clean-ups at prostitution hot-spots.

Our efforts in these two areas are both gaining momentum: on the mental health front, we just learned we will be receiving a grant from the Department of Justice to expand our efforts; and on the prostitution front, several police precincts have approached us for assistance dealing with increased prostitution activity, and Columbia University is assisting us with developing a curriculum for our first women-specific social service group.

At the same time, we're always working to make our community service targeted and meaningful in partnership with locally based organizations and community groups; seeking out new partners to help connect our clients to services; and working to serve judges and court players in the most efficient and productive ways as the courthouse environment is always changing.

Amber Pettit, our case manager focused on mental health, and Carrie Potts, our resource coordinator focused on prostitution, recently wrote down some of what we've been doing and learning so far. I'll post it here shortly - consider them "reports from the field": early observations, lessons, and successes we can share as we expand our efforts.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Harry Belafonte Gives Keynote Address

Last night the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the tenth year of operations for the Reentry Court with a graduation ceremony for it's most recent group of successful participants. Actor and social activist Harry Belafonte gave the keynote address. You can read more about the ceremony from Chris Watler, Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center, here, and Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

More on the San Fransisco Community Justice Center

Here's a very interesting article published a few days ago about the San Fransisco Community Justice Center. It explains a lot of the politics continueing to unfold around the Center, and also explains the great success that the Center has had since it decided to switch from misdemeanors and violations (public urination, possesion of a crack stem) to more serious felonies and probation violaters with more at stake, which I think is a very interesting development.

However, the low-level quality of life issues in and around the Tenderloin that the Justice Center was designed to address still remain an issue. Read here about a vigilante clean-up effort run amok. And, here's what the local police chief has to say: "New Police Chief George Gascón says his officers are making more arrests in the Tenderloin. That's a great idea, but don't think the Tenderloin Station cops have been sitting on their handcuffs. Station Capt. Gary Jimenez says they've made 3,900 arrests so far this year. The problem isn't arrests; it is getting results from arrests."

Candidates for Manhattan DA debate at John Jay

The three candidates for Manhattan District Attorney debated last night at John Jay College. Leslie Crocker Snyder, a veteran of New York's toughest fights against crime in the 80s and 90s, pointed out that frontrunner Cyrus Vance was mostly living in Seattle during those years and portrayed herself as challenging the old boy's network perpetuated by the outgoing, long-serving DA, Robert Morganthau. In response, Vance accused Snyder of changing her position on the death penalty in order to garner votes and maintained that he had the character and beliefs required for the job. Richard Aborn, a gun control advocate, is positioning himself as the most liberal candidate and has the most policy/reform experience. All three candidates served as assistant district attorneys under Morganthau, who choose not to endorse his own "right hand man," Dan Castleman, because he believed only Vance had the name recognition to defeat Snyder, who challenged him in the last election.

NY1 has the complete video of the debate: click here.