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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Creative Community Service

Here at Bronx Community Solutions, we're always thinking about ways to make community service sentences more creative and meaningful. This article caught my eye: "Juvenile Agency Starts Free Lawn-Service Program":

Elderly residents of Ward 5 in the District will get their lawns cut once a month free through a program created by the city's juvenile justice agency to give youths under court supervision a chance to give back to the community.

The D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services kicked off this year's program last week at the Northeast home of Eddye L. Williams, 109, thought to be the city's oldest resident. Nathaniel and James, two youths from the agency's New Beginnings Youth Center, who were identified only by their first names, worked through the morning Friday, cutting Williams's lawn.

"Many youths lack the opportunity to participate in the kinds of positive activities that most kids consider routine," said Vincent N. Schiraldi, the agency's director. "The free lawn service program is part of a growing effort by DYRS to involve young people in giving back to society as a way of connecting themselves to positive activities."

Research shows that youths are less likely to get arrested if they are "civically engaged" in the community, Schiraldi said.

Ward 5 residents 65 and older qualify for the program. The agency works with the city's Office on Aging and public officials to help identify participants for the program, said Reggie Sanders, the department's public information officer.

Thanks to Benjamin Chambers at the Reclaiming Futures Every Day blog for the link to the article in the Washington Post.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Early Results Are Positive

One of the new criminal justice initiatives I've been watching with the most interest is the San Fransisco Community Justice Center (mostly on the excellent blog of the San Francisco Superior Court's Collaborative Justice programs, Moving Justice Forward).

Lisa Lightman recently posted a report on the Center's operations since they opened their doors in March. I'm excited to read about their success so far. One thing they've done a very good job of is telling their story in numbers and demonstrating their results:
In the first 100 days since the CJC opened, the program has been able to reduce delay for misdemeanor citations from 45 days to 2 days for the first court appearance. The court has taken most "out of custody" misdemeanor cases, and is increasing its felony cases. The court has successfully engaged people in treatment plans under our diversion laws immediately upon program entry. Of the 160 clients who have engaged in services, 60 accessed care under a justice mandate, 60 defendants voluntarily engaged in services and 40 ‘walked-in’ or were referred from other agencies. There is already a cost-savings story to tell. An estimate of jail bed savings of only 5 CJC defendants totals $23,000. In tracking 2 clients identified as high users of multiple systems (repeated hospital visits, emergency psychiatric treatment, police and fire in a 6 month period), the CJC’s centralized services coupled with court accountability reduced these costs by 50 percent.
Despite my strong support for the Justice Center, I'm concerned about some trends in San Fransisco. Homeless advocates have accused the Justice Center of criminalizing poverty and those who choose or are forced to live on the street (Barbara Ehrenreich also recently wrote about a growing trend in last Sunday's Times). Of more concern is the rapid departure of people of color from the city. Recent years have witnessed a staggering out migration of 40% of African-Americans.

Many of society's most difficult problems inevitably end up in the lap of the criminal justice system. I believe that court's should work to address those issues as creatively and effectively as possible, while at the same time remaining cognizant and working to address the larger systemic issues that are the root causes of these problems. I thought Lisa Lightman summed up the logic of community courts and problem-solving courts quite well:
Research has shown that repeat offenders have a complicated set of problems that cause their criminal behavior. People are landing in the courtroom because other institutional safety nets are no longer in place. The court has become one of the last stops before jail.
Update: I just came across this article from the San Fransisco Examiner, "Seeking Justice For Tenderloin Court" which details the continuing political battles over the fate of the Justice Center and provides an interesting case study for the public policy debates over the relative merits of community courts and justice centers.

Update #2 (8/31/2009): The folks over at the excellent blog "California Corrections Crisis," maintained by faculty and students at UC Hastings College of Law, just posted a comprehensive update on all the developments around the Justice Center, "Community Justice Center Picks Up". Thanks to Julius Lang on the Courtbuilders listserve for the link.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Challenge of Mental Illness in the Juvenile Justice System

This article in the New York Times describes an overloaded juvenile justice system struggling with the issue of mental health services: "Mentally Ill Offenders Strain the Juvenile Justice System," by Solomon Moore.

As cash-starved states slash mental health programs in communities and schools, they are increasingly relying on the juvenile corrections system to handle a generation of young offenders with psychiatric disorders. About two-thirds of the nation’s juvenile inmates — who numbered 92,854 in 2006, down from 107,000 in 1999 — have at least one mental illness, according to surveys of youth prisons, and are more in need of therapy than punishment. ¶ 'We’re seeing more and more mentally ill kids who couldn’t find community programs that were intensive enough to treat them,' said Joseph Penn, a child psychiatrist at the Texas Youth Commission.
This is an issue we've been been dealing with for a few years in the Bronx. Since the beginning of 2007, Bronx Community Solutions has been coordinating the Juvenile Accountability Court, an intensive form of probation designed to prevent placement in detention by combining intensive supervision with enhanced services and increased judicial monitoring. One service that has been consistently identified as a major need is assessment and services for mental health issues (the other most serious needs, aside from drug counseling, anger management, and after school activities include help navigating the education system and family counseling and engagement).

For a period of time, the Juvenile Accountability Court benefited from a devoted source of funding that made it possible to contract for comprehensive mental health services. After that source of funding expired, we have attempted to connect our clients to the mental health services available in the Bronx at hospitals, community clinics, and private doctors, through Medicaid and other insurance coverage, but this has been very challenging.

Back in March the Health and Hospital Corporation, the large agency responsible for running a network of public hospitals as well as much of the health and mental health services available in the city's criminal justice system, announced budget cuts that included the closure of mental health programs such as Highbridge Health Center, a community health clinic; a mental health day-treatment program for 300 adults at Harlem Hospital Center; and another serving 80 adolescents at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

National Night Out 2009

From Acting Project Director Maria Almonte:

On Tuesday, August 4, 2009, Bronx Community Solutions participated once again in the Bronx's National Night Out Against Crime. This event has been taking place for over twenty-five years across the nation and it is designed to bring together residents and the criminal justice system to improve safety and prevent crime.

This year we assisted three of our neighborhood precincts (the 43rd, 44th, and 48th) by providing set-up and clean-up crews and handing out information to local residents about the services at the court. At the 44th we set up a table full of valuable information for the community, at the 48th, we removed some graffiti from a commercial building centrally located in the areas where they did their ‘night-out’ event. And finally, we provided a clean-up community service crew at the 43rd's event. All of our partners appreciated our collaborative efforts in making this year another successful community event.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Stop and Frisk 101?

This is an interesting account in the Village Voice about the "Bushwick 32" a group of young people ranging in age from 13 to 21 who were the subject of a controversial mass arrest on the way to the funeral of a friend on May 21, 2007, who have subsequently forced the city to pay a large settlement in a civil lawsuit that alleged police harassment and unlawful arrest.

It turns out that several members of this group had been taking part in a program at Bushwick Community High School that teaches students about the law and how to handle themselves in encounters with police.

"A lot of our kids had been so used to being violated that they didn't know it was their right not to be. Like walking home from school, being searched, and being asked to stand up against a police car--this is something kids in different neighborhoods never experience. "Stop-And-Frisk 101" by Elizabeth Dwoskin.