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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reentry and Outreach

Two years ago, Reentry Anonymous was created by members of the Bronx ReEntry Task Force and Bronx ReEntry Working Group to serve as a support group for returning citizens, similar to the AA or NA model of group therapy and ongoing support. On December 17, 2014 two members of the Reentry Anonymous group and myself went to the Metropolitan Correctional Facility where we participated in a panel for 20 detainees who will soon be released into their communities. The questions were all about reentry: the detainees’ had some good questions on how we reintegrated back into our family, community, and society; also how we found jobs with our criminal record. They asked how we were thinking before we became returning citizens, and how we prepared before we were released.  

All of the detainees were intrigued about how we started the Reentry Anonymous group and what it is all about. Some asked if they can stay in contact with the group after their released. They also asked what challenges we overcame and how we overcame them. We simply told them what worked for each of us. For some of us, the key was persistence -- trying over and over again even when efforts to get a job, for instance, are not met with immediate success. For others the key was focusing on positive social relationships that do not undermine a person's progress. 

The facility asked us if we can come again to do the same with another group and we will be pleased to do so. It is a rewarding experience going back to a correctional facility as visitors, not as inmates, in order to guide those who will soon take similar steps. Hopefully they can learn from our experiences so they will not commit the same mistakes and not feel defeated or end up going back to the same way of living that got them incarcerated in the first place.

Do not misunderstand me, there is a lot of work to be done in reentry. As we know the United States has the most people behind bars. The questions is when they go home how we are going to keep them home?

- Ramon Semorile, BCS Crew Supervisor and Bronx ReEntry Working Group Facilitator

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Great Shred

Here at BCS our pace of work is often set by the pace of the court system. Different days of the week have different perceived (and actual) workflows. And the court's workflow relates to somewhat predictable variables, such as cases from the weekend pouring into arraignment parts on Monday and Tuesday. Fridays are often slower. And the Friday right after Christmas Day, when all court parts save one and arraignments are closed? In anticipation of that we decided to close operations for the day and use it as a time to catch up on various administrative tasks. Many staff members were also away on much-deserved vacations, so the few that remained cleaned house.

Community Service crew supervisor Ramon Semorile can now add Master Shredder to his resume, purging over ten huge bags of shredded paper representing documents that have been converted to electronic files. A picture is worth a thousand words, and millions of teeny tiny pieces of paper.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays!

Last Friday the Bronx Community Solutions staff held our annual holiday party. We played a white elephant gift exchange game and then headed to Bowlerland in the Bronx to battle it out at the lanes. We had a great time!!

Wishing you a fun, safe and productive holiday this year.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Incarcerations Rates in New York City

Greg Berman wrote a piece for TalkPoverty that frames Bronx Community Solutions as part of a NYC-wide effort to provide expanded sentencing alternatives to judges for low level offenses. You can check it out here, and pasted below: Reducing Jail: A New York Story

Reducing Jail: A New York Story

We are living through a fascinating moment in terms of criminal justice policy in the United States.
When I first started working in criminal justice in the early 1990s, it was almost impossible to have a conversation with an elected official or a high-ranking criminal justice policymaker of any political persuasion without talking about the need to be “tough on crime.” The backdrop for these conversations was a pervasive sense of fear (of lawlessness on the streets) and despair (about the prospects of successfully rehabilitating offenders).

Today, I turned on my computer to discover that Newt Gingrich has endorsed the idea of reducing incarceration in the United States. He is not the only voice on the right calling for change. Indeed, hopeful analysts have cited criminal justice reform as one of the few potential areas where Democrats and Republicans in Washington might find common ground in the final two years of President Obama’s term. Clearly, the center of gravity has shifted in terms of the politics of crime.
A lot of hard work has gone into making this happen. The “justice reinvestment” movement has played a particularly crucial role, advancing a bipartisan approach to criminal justice that relies on hard data rather than the politics of emotion. The U.S. Department of Justice has also made an important contribution by documenting what works and then disseminating this information to the field (

These national-level efforts have been bolstered by numerous reformers working at the state and local level to demonstrate that it is in fact possible to reduce the use of incarceration without undermining public safety.

Take New York, for example. Between 1999 and 2012, New York reduced its prison population by 26 percent—a decline of nearly 20,000 inmates. The use of jail in New York City has also been reduced—the daily head count on Rikers Island is now less than 11,000, down from more than 21,000 at its peak.

Even as New York’s jail and prison rolls have gone down, so too has crime, declining by 69 percent over two decades.

Most of the public acclaim for these developments has gone to the New York Police Department and New York City mayors who have made crime-fighting a priority. Under the radar, the judicial branch has also played an important role.

Thanks to the leadership of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his predecessor Judith S. Kaye, the New York courts have made a sustained institutional commitment to creating a variety of alternative-to-incarceration programs. The courts have developed special programs for defendants with substance abuse and mental health problems. They have sought to increase the use of services in cases involving 16 and 17-year old defendants and victims of human trafficking. And they have launched a number of community-based programs that have sought to promote alternative sentencing in high-crime neighborhoods. (In the interests of full disclosure, my agency—the Center for Court Innovation— has worked with the judiciary to conceive and implement many of these projects.)
Crucially, the alternative programs launched by the New York courts target not just felony defendants but also people charged with misdemeanors. Misdemeanor convictions may expose defendants to less time behind bars, but the consequences can be long-lasting in terms of employment, housing, child custody, student loans, immigration status, and a host of government benefits. For many, a misdemeanor conviction is another step along a path that leads toward a life of poverty.

While much of the popular discussion focuses on federal sentencing guidelines and the need to reduce state prison populations, there is significant work to be done at the local level to reduce the use of jail. (Jails are typically administered by counties and are designed to hold defendants awaiting trial and inmates sentenced to a term of less than 1 year. Prisons are run by the state or the federal government and typically hold inmates serving sentences of more than 1 year.)

One of the hidden truths of the justice system is that minor cases are much more voluminous than serious offenses. As John Jay College recently documented, nearly 75 percent of the arrests that the police make in New York City are for misdemeanor crimes – more than 235,000 in 2012, for example.

In response to the preponderance of minor cases, the New York courts (with an assist from the Center for Court Innovation) created Bronx Community Solutions to provide criminal court judges in the Bronx with additional sentencing options for non-violent offenses such as drug possession, shoplifting and prostitution. This includes community restitution projects as well as social service classes, job training and individual counseling.

One challenge that has long plagued alternative-to-incarceration programs is the Field of Dreams question: if you build it, will they come? Will judges actually avail themselves of alternatives?
The experience in the Bronx suggests that when alternative programs have been developed with the active involvement of the judiciary, they are more likely to win the support of the judges on the ground who ultimately determine whether someone is incarcerated or stays in the community. According to the New York City Mayor’s Office, after Bronx Community Solutions began offering alternative sentences to misdemeanor defendants in the Bronx, the percentage of convicted defendants sentenced to jail fell from 23.7 percent in 2004 to 13.5 percent in 2012—a 43 percent reduction. Keep in mind, this is not a boutique program dealing with a handful of participants; each year Bronx Community Solutions works with about 9,000 defendants.

But this battle is by no means won—plenty of work remains to reduce the number of people in Rikers Island, particularly those who are detained pre-trial. However, Bronx Community Solutions has made one thing perfectly clear: change is possible—even in high-volume, urban justice systems.

Greg Berman is the director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York and the author of Reducing Crime, Reducing Incarceration (Quid Pro Books). You can follow him on Twitter @GregBerman50.
Photo Provided by AP Photo/Tom Gannam

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

BCS Brings the Arts to Community Service

ADP Community Service participants receiving a tour of select exhibits at the Bronx Museum of the Arts
This past November, Bronx Community Solutions, in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, offered a three-day arts education workshop with participants of the Bronx Community Solutions Adolescent Diversion Program, exploring the intersection between art, social justice, and community awareness.

Over three days, five ADP participants were selected to work under the guidance of Ellie Krakow, a visual artist and arts educator with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, to tour the Bronx Museum’s current exhibition, discuss the social issues addressed in the artwork, hone their artistic voice and create original works of art in the museum’s art studio. Their participation satisfied a court mandate after a misdemeanor arrest, as an alternative to short-term jail available through the Bronx Community Solutions Adolescent Diversion Program.

On the first day, each participant was challenged to exit their comfort zones and enter a world where their voices and bodies are their power. Participants engaged, hesitantly at first, in Boal exercises, from the Theater of the Oppressed, where games, drama, and language are used to understand social reality and seek to change it. Participants were then asked to brainstorm ideas about pressing social issues they would like to see changed in their lives and in their community. Major themes shared were gang violence, police brutality, and legalization of marijuana. Participants were prompted to visualize imagery and draw sketches of their chosen theme and were supported in the initiation of the print making process—creating their matrix (an etched plate to be used to create their print).

On the second day, participants were given a guided tour of select works of art from the Bronx Museum’s private collection currently on exhibition. The tour was given on a day in which the museum was closed to the public which allowed full access to the gallery space. The exhibition “in print / imprint” was chosen because it highlights print making as an invaluable tool for channeling political concerns. Due to its mass reproducibility, economy, ease of distribution, and collaborative character, printmaking has long been considered a vehicle for social agency and has played a major role in politically mobilizing different communities and constituencies. Participants were afforded the opportunity for in-depth discussion of theme, history, and message of artwork by celebrated artists such as Kara Walker, Sanford Biggers, and Vitto Acconci.

Kara Walker
Sanford Biggers
Participants were then afforded additional studio time in which they were given a lesson in printmaking. With art aprons on and tools in hand, each participant created a limited edition of their print.

Participants learned from museum staff how to make prints of their work

On day three participants continued their discussion of issues that were important to them, and what they wished to express about themselves. They considered different methods and strategies for conveying their messages artistically with text, and each adopted a unique approach to articulating their message. Once the projects were completed, participants were encouraged to respond to each other’s projects, discuss the artistic elements as well as subject matter, and the meaning of the messages conveyed.

By the conclusion of day three, all participants had created works of art responding to social issues that were important to them, and engaged in dialogue about community issues with their peers. It was a huge success, and we look forward to future collaboration with the Bronx Museum of the Arts!

- Monica Garcia, Coordinator of Community Engagement and Initiatives
- Rebecca Stahl, Youth Justice Coordinator

Monday, December 01, 2014

New Internships at BCS!

Bronx Community Solutions has been making a number of exciting changes to our internship program. We have long since relied on the help of devoted interns from our very first year of operations, when we had a small team of Americorps volunteers work with us throughout the year in a variety of capacities. We expanded shortly thereafter, adding Social Work Interns who work with us primarily in the clinic for an academic year as part of their educational program toward earning a Masters Degree. High school interns and volunteers have also played a part in keeping BCS running smoothly throughout the years. Having interns has been a great way for the program to be enhanced by encompassing the work of people with a variety of experiences and interests. Interns and volunteers often infuse the project with a new energy that helps permanent staff members stay focused and motivated to do challenging work.

This year, BCS is experimenting with expanding our internship program to include more people from different educational backgrounds and stages. We thought we would highlight those changes below, and future blog posts will illustrate the work that these different groups of interns are doing throughout the year. Stay tuned!

Here is a breakdown of each group of interns, and an overview of the work they will be doing with BCS this year.

Social Work
BCS continues to host graduate-level interns from Social Work programs in New York City. This year we have three students working with us, two from Columbia University School of Social Work and one from Hunter University's Silberman School of Social Work. This year, each intern is focused on a specific initiative as well as supporting the Social Service Department in general programming. One intern is each assigned to either the Adolescent Diversion Program, the Human Trafficking Intervention Court (AP-8) initiative, and the Mental Health Initiative. Each of them conducts individual counseling sessions and runs groups to clients who have been mandated to social services, and they support the department with case management and compliance efforts. Social Work Interns receive on-site supervision from BCS clinicians. In addition to this, they receive group supervision on a quarterly basis at BCS from different clinicians on a variety of special topics, and they are invited to attend CCI Social Worker meetings when schedules permit. They are each in their final year of school before earning their Masters degree.

John Jay School of Criminal Justice
In an initiative thoughtfully formalized by our Compliance Coordinator, Lovis Nelson-Williams, BCS is hosting a team of five interns from the CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice, at the graduate and undergraduate-levels. These students are working primarily in the Intake Department, and their work serves as part of their educational requirements for graduation. Interns from John Jay conduct intake assessments with our clients and serve as classroom monitors to help with the administration and safety of our psychoeducational group programming. Some of these interns specialize in other areas such as Community Service or the Driving While Intoxicated initiative. Their internships at BCS will now include quarterly brown-bag lunches with guests speakers from various arenas of criminal justice expertise and site visits to partner agencies and demonstration projects.

Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice
Under the leadership of Coordinator of Community Engagement and Initiatives, Monica Garcia, BCS has taken on two high school interns from the Bronx School of Law, Government and Justice (LGJ), which is located in close proximity to the courthouse. BCS has partnered with LGJ before for special events such as Law Day. The interns will support BCS with administrative and organizational tasks and special projects with the Community Initiatives department.

An intern from the Midtown Community Court's UpNext program recently joined the BCS team, helping the Community Service Department by serving as an assistant crew supervisor for the next six weeks. The UpNext program provides employment-related support to noncustodial fathers and underemployed and unemployed men seeking assistance with workforce development. The intern's work with BCS is taking the form of a six-week fellowship for which he was selected after having successfully completed the UpNext program.

As we have since 2012, BCS hosts an intern for a 16-month fellowship funded by the Pinkerton Foundation. The current Pinkerton Fellow is an undergraduate student at John Jay. She has been working with us since last summer and will continue through this academic year, focusing on supporting the Intake Department and Adolescent Diversion Program.

A big welcome to all the new faces at BCS, and a big thank you to our interns who have been with us for many months already!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Misdemeanor Offenders and Broken Windows Theory

CCI Executive Director Greg Berman recently had an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal highlighting both the work done at the Red Hook Community Justice Center and a new research project conducted by CCI in partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the U.S. Department of Justice. This research is focused on creating a risk/needs assessment tool specific to misdemeanor defendants. When the project is completed, the hope is to have a tool available for use in any jurisdiction that will facilitate the use of alternative sanctions by efficiently identifying not only the risk of rearrest that an individual poses, but the underlying needs they may have that could be addressed through the criminal justice system in lieu of a brief jail sentence. The op-ed also touches on broken windows theory, which has frequently appeared in the media lately.

The op-ed can be found here, and is pasted below.

A Surprising Portrait of the Misdemeanor Criminal
By Greg Berman

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a report at the end of October documenting the rise of misdemeanor arrests in New York City since the 1980s. The timing of the report was fortuitous. The city’s policy makers, academics and advocacy groups are in the midst of a spirited debate over the merits of broken-windows policing—a philosophy that suggests police can help prevent crime by addressing low-level disorder.

To proponents, broken windows is not just the linchpin of New York’s miraculous public-safety improvements over the past generation. It is one of the foundations of civilized society: If we do not care for the physical appearance of our city or attempt to promote civil behavior among its inhabitants, we court chaos.

Critics of broken windows point to the collateral damage that accompanies low-level law enforcement—citing thousands of New Yorkers exposed to criminal convictions, potential incarceration and negative long-term consequences like exclusion from public housing and diminished job prospects.

Opponents of broken windows tend to focus on one segment of the misdemeanor population. A recent piece by Michael Greenberg in the Nov. 6 New York Review of Books is typical. Highlighting a 17-year-old student apprehended for possessing the remnants of a joint, Mr. Greenberg writes: “By an overwhelming majority, New Yorkers who are arrested for low-level infractions . . . are young black and Hispanic men in poor neighborhoods. Often these arrests have been for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana . . . police saddle thousands of young men with criminal records for an offense that the state has largely decriminalized and that white people regularly commit with impunity.”

There are thousands of people who fit this description. The John Jay College report highlights that the rate of misdemeanor arrests for black men between the ages of 18 and 20 in New York City almost tripled between 1990 and 2013—rising to more than 20,000 arrests per 100,000 people from fewer than 8,000 per 100,000.

But this is an incomplete portrait of the misdemeanor population. The John Jay study documents that half of the misdemeanor arrests in New York City are a direct response to complaints or involve more serious misdemeanor offenses such as domestic violence, theft or weapons possession.

In an effort to better understand all this, the Center for Court Innovation is conducting a study that has involved interviewing nearly 1,000 people charged with misdemeanors in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The first thing to note is that most of them are not teens—the average age is 35. They are also not newcomers to the criminal justice system—more than half have prior misdemeanor convictions and more than a third have prior felony convictions.

There’s a saying that misdemeanors aren’t complicated legal cases, but they are committed by people with complicated lives. The data underline this truth. This is a population with serious problems and multiple needs. More than half of our sample reported being unemployed, and nearly one in two said they use drugs daily. Mental health issues abound. The prevalence of trauma was staggering. More than half of the sample reported having witnessed a shooting or other violent event. One in four reported having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Nearly 20% said they had attempted suicide.

The emerging research suggests several new directions for the criminal-justice system. First, there are opportunities to divert out of the system thousands of New Yorkers who have been apprehended for quality-of-life offenses such as marijuana possession or transportation-fare avoidance. These opportunities should be seized—either by not making formal arrests or by increasing the use of pretrial diversion programs for young people and those who have committed a single infraction or two. When interacting with these and other populations on the streets, the police should take pains to explain their decisions clearly and to treat individuals with dignity and respect; research suggests this will promote law-abiding behavior in the long run.

But the research tells us that many people accused of misdemeanors come to the justice system with more serious issues than occasional marijuana use. Yet there are opportunities for reform here, too. Instead of using jail as a default, courts can be much more aggressive in linking misdemeanor offenders to drug treatment, job training and mental-health counseling, for instance, addressing the kinds of problems that lead to more criminal behavior.

There is already solid evidence that this can make a difference. The Red Hook Community Justice Center was created in 2000 to expand the use of alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanor offenders in southwest Brooklyn. Each year the center links thousands of defendants to social services and community restitution projects in lieu of jail. An independent evaluation in 2013 by the National Center for State Courts documented that the project reduced the number of defendants receiving jail sentences by 35%. Over a two-year study period, adult defendants handled at the Justice Center were 10% less likely to commit new crimes than offenders who were processed in a traditional courthouse. Juvenile defendants were 20% less likely to re-offend.
The reductions in felony crimes over the last 30 years have been hailed around the world as “the New York miracle,” and credited with reducing fear and improving economic development. Today we are experiencing an ancillary benefit: The decline of felonies has created breathing room to give misdemeanors and the people who commit them the focus they deserve.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New BCS Group - Know Your Rights

8e2f448e0bd782c1b5134ecab8ef097a.jpeg (250×250)
Today, we began a new pilot group for BCS participants called "Know Your Rights," run by BCS partner organization MFY Legal Services. MFY Legal Services is an organization that provides free legal assistance to vulnerable and underserved populations on a wide range of civil legal issues. Within that program, the MFY Re-entry Project provides free legal advice, counsel, and/or representation to people with criminal records who want to re-enter the workforce and seek security or other occupational licenses. Last July, MFY conducted a training in July on criminal records and employment for Bronx Community Solutions staff.

The "Know Your Rights" group held at BCS today taught participants about various legal issues they may be facing after receiving a criminal conviction with regards to getting a job, keeping a job, or attaining a particular professional designation. The first session was a success, and the group was very engaged and interested in hearing what the facilitator had to say. Seven participants stayed behind to seek voluntary, individual consultation with the facilitator.

Stay tuned for more about this in December when the second group is taking place!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BCS Helps Out with Special Graffiti Cleanup in the 44th Precinct

BCS clients, crew supervisor and officers worked together on a special clean-up project in the 44th Precinct
BCS has worked with the Community Affairs Unit of the 44th precinct removing graffiti for over seven years. We have a day designated for graffiti removal which is every Thursday. Community Service Coordinator Moises Reyes always spread days of the month so we can work with most of the precincts from the Bronx so that all have a chance to remove graffiti with us.
Clients worked alongside officers to cleanup a local wall that had been covered with graffiti
On September 22,  we received a call from Officer Tejada of the 44th precinct Community Affairs Unit to see if we can help them remove graffiti on Wednesday 24. At first I had to tell them no, because graffiti removal is on Thursdays, not Wednesdays, and we wouldn't have enough participants but to my surprise I was told that it a special initiative from the Department and so officers will be helping with the removal of graffiti. In other words, they will be helping, working alongside with BCS clients and myself.

It was a good experience to see the two clients from BCS and the officers working together removing graffiti. Everyone got along - they were talking and laughing, and at the end of the day they all said thank you one another. One local resident walking by also said thank you to the group.
- Ramon Semorile, BCS Community Service Crew Supervisor
The wall before...
...And after!

Monday, October 06, 2014

BCS Hosts Community Advisory Board Meeting

               On Wednesday, September 17th, the Bronx Community Solutions’ Community Advisory Board met in the Bronx Criminal Courthouse. Present were representatives from the offices of the Bronx Borough President, Bronx District Attorney (Human Trafficking Division), Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, and The New York Police Department’s Bureau of Community Affairs. Also present was Veterans Affairs along with other Bronx Community Solutions partners Vertex and Bronx Life Recovery Center. The focus of this CAB meeting was to share with our partners the work that BCS has done in 2013.

            In 2013, almost 9,000 clients were referred to BCS with alternative sentencing mandates. Over 80% actually reported for intake which is a 78% increase from 2012. And 74% actually completed their court ordered mandates through BCS. BCS Adolescent Diversion Project (ADP) and our Mental Health Initiative had a 75% increase. Our AP8 (Human Trafficking Intervention Court) division also had a completion rate of 70%. BCS’s community service program saved the city over $478,000 and over 66,000 hours of work toward revitalization of neighborhoods across the Bronx.

            The star of the CAB meeting was Manual Larino and our DWI/DUI department, who in 2013 connected clients with providers such as Vertex and BLRC. Over 900 clients were referred for assessments and 85% of the clients successfully completed their mandated treatment. Kudos to Manuel and the DWI department! The BCS Community Advisory board will meet once again in six months and BCS looks forward to continuing to connecting with the Bronx community in this forum.
- Carmen Alcantara, Bronx Community Solutions Intern

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Success Story - ADP


Richard is an 18-year-old male who was arrested and charged with petit larceny for allegedly stealing candy bars and ice cream with the intention of reselling them. Richard was 17-years-old at the time of arrest, and was already serving adult probation for a previous larceny charge. Subsequently, Richard was remanded to Riker’s Island on this case, which is not always the outcome for petit larceny offenses. When the Bronx Community Solutions resource coordinator became aware of Richard’s case, he arranged for Richard to be assessed by the Youth Justice Social Worker to create an alternative to incarceration plan.

The assessment identified Richard as having high needs related to family support, housing, mental health and education. Richard was effectively homeless, and at the time he was arrested had not had access to food in nearly three days. He had no support services in place to address any of the high-risk factors he presented. Bronx Community Solutions recommended Richard participate in six months of intensive case management at Bronx Community Solutions, with the goal of stabilizing his housing, education, and mental health.

All parties agreed to the BCS recommendation, and Richard was released from jail and began meeting with YJSW once a week. Richard worked with BCS to become consistent in his appointments with Probation, and learn strategies and coping skills to manage depression and anxiety. He was able to reactivate his Medicaid, and get connected to a long-term mental health provider in his community. Richard is back in high school and the school reports he is off to a good start, having demonstrated consistent attendance so far. Richard has had one positive compliance report to the Judge, and is on his way to completing his court mandate. As a result of receiving ADP services, Richard gained support to deal with complex issues and increased his internal motivation and determination to stay out of the criminal justice system. He is expected to complete his six month mandate with the BCS Adolescent Diversion Project in December 2014.

- Rebecca Stahl, LMSW
Bronx Community Solutions, Adolescent Diversion Program Case Manager

Thursday, September 04, 2014

BCS Crew Cleans Up Highbridge

The area before the BCS crew began community service
In 2007 Bronx Community Solutions began the Graffiti Removal program in the Highbridge neighborhood of the bronx, located in the 44th Precinct. The location of 67 West 169th Street, between the Edward L. Grant Highway and Shakespeare Avenue has been one location that has always been a challenge for us in terms of removing graffiti tagging and keeping it clean.

The same location, after nine BCS clients completed their day of work!
On September 4th, 2014, we returned to the location with nine clients who were each mandated to complete community service after being charged with graffiti tagging. The day went smoothly. One of the residents of 67 West 169th Street even came out and thanked the crew, which made the clients feel proud of their hard work.

- Ramon Semorile, BCS Community Service Crew Supervisor

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Broken Windows Theory

Broken Windows Theory infuses many of the ideas and projects of the Center for Court Innovation. My overly simplified explanation of the theory goes like so: by changing the appearance of a neighborhood for the better (ex. repairing broken windows on buildings; painting over graffiti), you can reduce crime. An area that appears as if it is being looked after will cause crime-committing individuals to take it to a less well-tended area, or even rethink committing the crime at all. Broken Windows Theory is credited as one of the factors that helped transform New York City into a safer place in the 1980s. Recently, it's been appearing in the press in a negative light, tied to mass arrests for seemingly frivolous crimes. The head honcho of the Center For Court Innovation Greg Berman wrote about this duality on The Crime Report. You can read the article here, and pasted below.

Broken Windows 2.0: A Smarter Version

August 19, 2014 02:29:00 am
By Greg Berman

In recent weeks, the public debate in New York City over “broken windows” has become almost deafening.  According to the New York Times and the Nation, the commitment of the New York Police Department (NYPD)  to low-level law enforcement is a broken policy that has “exacerbated discrimination, not improved safety (Nation).” 
Opinion writers at the City Journal and the New York Daily News have pushed back. The Journal called  broken windows “a moral imperative;” while, according to The News, it is  a “proven policy that is helping save lives.”
So where does the truth lie?  As is often the case, the media attention has brought more heat than light to this issue, creating an either/or dynamic that essentially forces public officials and scholars to choose sides.  If you listen to the most outspoken advocates, broken windows is either the thin blue line separating New York City from the chaos and disorder of the 1980s, or an instrument of institutional racism designed to oppress low-income and minority residents.
Instead of focusing on whether the NYPD should abolish broken windows policing, it might be more productive to ask: how can our city maintain public order without unnecessarily exposing thousands of New Yorkers to criminal convictions and jail time? 
Or, to put it another way, is it possible to get the positive benefits of broken windows without the negative consequences?
The first answer to this dilemma is that there are many ways to promote public order other than making arrests. One option is to focus on physical space rather than individual miscreants.  There is a growing body of research that suggests, just as George Kelling and James Q. Wilson theorized, that improving the physical environment—cleaning up abandoned lots, enhancing lighting, taking care of public parks—can help deter local crime.  And criminologist David Weisburd has documented that place-based prevention efforts don’t result in widespread displacement; to the contrary, targeting local hot spots helps reduce disorder in neighboring areas as well.
An emphasis on improving physical conditions should be married with a commitment to encouraging positive uses of public spaces.  Since Jane Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of Great American Cities, urban planners have understood the value of “eyes on the street.” By encouraging our neighbors and merchants to keep track of what is happening on the sidewalks and subways, we can help deter misbehavior. 
Many cities have sought to build on this insight by engaging local residents in volunteer programs, urban gardening projects, and public arts initiatives in spaces that were formerly devoted to open-air drug markets and other illegal activities.  In some places, like East Palo Alto, Ca., police officers have played a leading role, getting local residents out of their homes for power walking, yoga and Zumba dancing. This isn’t window dressing and these aren’t just feel-good projects: these are important crime-fighting strategies.
While physical improvements and community engagement can go a long way towards cleaning up crime-plagued neighborhoods, there will always be a role for law enforcement in addressing quality-of-life crime.  We don’t want to encourage police to look the other way when they have probable cause to suspect a minor offense has been committed.
 But this does not necessarily mean that every time a police officer stops someone the end result should be a court case and a jail sentence.  To the contrary, we should be creating off-ramps at each key point of decision-making in the process—at the moment of arrest, charging, and sentencing—so that the criminal justice system does not use incarceration as a default setting.  (Indeed, many types of unruly behavior can be dealt with by police without an arrest at all.)
Police, prosecutors, probation officers, and judges should be actively looking for opportunities to divert those apprehended for minor offenses to community service projects and short-term social service interventions in lieu of traditional case processing and conventional sentencing options.  There is ample evidence that alternative approaches can not only change the behavior of offenders but help restore public trust in justice so long as criminal justice officials take pains to treat defendants with dignity and respect.
Granted, talking about alternative sentencing, diversion schemes and community clean-up efforts isn’t as exciting as railing against injustice or painting nightmare scenarios of a dystopian New York City.  But it just might help those of us who care about addressing both disorder and disproportionate minority involvement to forge a better criminal justice system.
Greg Berman is the director of the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership that seeks to reform the justice system through alternatives to incarceration and other projects. He welcomes comments from readers.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A BCS Summer Intern's Experience

Throughout the year, Bronx Community Solutions relies on the careful, enthusiastic work provided by a rotating team of talented interns. Interns help out with intake and scheduling, classroom monitoring, special projects such as the DWI Initiative, and doing direct clinical work in the Social Service Department. One aspect that I find particularly rewarding about working with interns is that they often ask the important questions that keep us on our toes -- "How do we know that we are helping? Can we do this better?" Even the most innovative project can fall into routines and habits.

This summer we were fortunate to have the assistance of Robin Arnett from Columbia University's School of Social Work. Robin spent the summer providing direct clinical services and supporting the department with resource outreach and compliance efforts. She writes below about her experience at BCS:

This past summer, I served as an intern in the clinic at Bronx Community Solutions. I am currently a graduate student at Columbia University studying for a dual-masters in social work and international affairs. I just completed the first year of a three year program and have been working as an intern at BCS during the summer. In my time here, my primary role was to meet with clients for individual counseling sessions. The social services department at BCS assigns either attendance to a group or individual counseling sessions to clients as a part of their court mandate. Groups cover a diverse range of topics, including substance abuse, anger management, and women’s health, and I was able to sit in on some of these groups as a part of my time here.

This internship has been interesting and enlightening in many ways. This was the first time that I have worked within the criminal justice system. My field work assignment for my degree next year also does not involve the criminal justice system, but after working here this summer, I more fully understand how important it was for me to be here. Understanding this will be essential to my effectiveness as a social worker throughout my career.

I am so thankful to have had a chance to speak with and hear the stories of the many clients who came through BCS and spoke with me this summer. Statistics and impressions became flesh and blood human beings. When people are labeled as “criminals” the moment they enter the justice system, their humanity is not given the respect that it deserves. I have been struck by the diversity of clientele that I have worked with in only the few months that I have spent at BCS. I have also been impressed by the resiliency that I have seen in so many of my clients, even in the face of highly challenging circumstances. More than ever, I am convinced that alternatives to incarceration are crucial to the effective functioning of the criminal justice system, and hold the potential for great benefit to the system and to the communities within which it operates most heavily. I support the Brooklyn D.A.’s recent decision to decline prosecution in low-level marijuana possession cases, and I hope that the Bronx will follow suit. I hope that legislation like this, and programs like BCS can help to improve community relations with police and the justice system as a whole. Public safety depends on trust between law enforcement and communities, and imprisoning large numbers of people does not necessarily result in safer streets. Working at BCS has been highly educational, and I will surely take what I have learned with me in my work in the future.

- Robin Elizabeth Arnett
Columbia School of Social Work

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Bronx is Blooming!

BCS ADP Community Service Participants and youth volunteers begin their day of work in the park
On Tuesday, July 29th, the Bronx was blooming at Joyce Kilmer Park on 161st street and Grand Concourse. BCS Youth Community Service met with our new Partner organization called "The Bronx is Blooming," founded by Jennifer Beaugrand. The Bronx is Blooming seeks to inspire a culture of environmental stewardship and community advocacy by engaging Bronx communities and youth as leaders in the beautification of local parks. We started the day with an ice breaker game, getting to know a little about one another, sharing what motivated us to do this type of work. That was followed by group leader Carlos, who explained what type of work we were about to do and the reasons behind these projects.
Getting to work!
The work of the day consisted of cutting old trees branches, removing the weeds, rocks and trash around the trees and filling it with organic mulches made of wood chips, which is used to retain moisture in the soil, suppressing weeds for a long life for the trees.
With five BCS Youth Community service and eight volunteers from The Bronx is Blooming we were able to take care of twelve trees. The participants learned about gardening and they had fun!
The young volunteers from The Bronx is Blooming were an inspiration for our clients. Bronx Community Solutions is looking forward to do more projects like these in the future.
Helping the trees. Moises Reyes, BCS, at left
- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service

A job well done!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Harmony Day

The tradition continued in the Bronx: last week the New York Police Department and the community came together to celebrate Harmony Day. Officers and community members gathered in Van Cortlandt park to enjoy entertainment, good food, games and a lot of fun things to do geared toward both children and adults. Around 3,000 children from various schools in the Bronx participated overall.

Bronx Community Solutions was honored to be able to assist with clean-up of the event, at the request of the NYPD. Six BCS Adolescent Diversion Project community service crew members came out in the afternoon to help. Harmony day was a successful event, bringing safety and fun to Bronx residents and strengthening their relationship with the NYPD.

- Ramon Semorile, Community Service Crew Supervisor
- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service


Friday, July 25, 2014

"When the right conditions come along, success becomes inevitable."

In April of this year the Center for Court Innovation co-hosted a conference on community justice in San Francisco, CA that was attended by participants from jurisdictions all over the country, and representing ten different nations. The theme of the summit was finding new ways to approach criminal justice, moving away from mass incarceration and embracing sentencing alternatives.

One of the speakers was Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco. He talks about companies that are using bottom-up/crowdsourcing strategies with success and how that is similar to the more holistic style of criminal justice being tested by organizations such as CCI (and BCS!). Here's a clip to the entire talk, I recommend it: Gavin Newsom on Community Justice

Bronx Reentry Working Group Holds 4th Annual Forum

Ramon Semorile, BCS
              On the 17th of July the Bronx Reentry Working group held its Fourth Annual Forum at Hostos Community College in collaboration with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Bronx Community Solutions and HealthPeople. The intentions of the community forum are to: 1) provide a venue to showcase some of the wonderful activities happening in the Bronx related to community reintegration, and 2) to showcase the practice evidence that professional support - education, employment, social service/health agencies and community supervision, in conjunction with long-term social and emotional support - are key ingredients to the reentry process in the Bronx. The program brought together 70 individuals representing community members, returning citizens, health providers, corrections officers and professionals from local service provider organizations. Special thanks to Peter Mertens, Assistant Dean of Continuing Education and Workforce Development of Hostos Community College for providing us with the space to hold this forum and to HealthPeople for providing MetroCards and catering the event. 

 - Ramon Semorile, BCS Crew Supervisor and Reentry Working Group Member

The Forum  was covered on local news! Bronx News 12 was present to cover the event. You can see the footage and hear more about it here:

Bronx Community Solutions intern Carmen is a student at John Jay School for Criminal Justice. Carmen Alcantara has been a huge help to us this summer and will continue working with our intake and compliance department through the rest of the summer. She attended the Forum and describes it in greater detail below. Well done, Carmen!
Support for Our Returning Citizens
by Carmen Alcantara
At the Fourth Annual Bronx Reentry Forum, health and professional development providers, reentering citizens, and community supporters gathered for Bronx Reentry Working Group’s collaboration with Bronx Community Solutions, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Health People for a presentation focusing on reentering citizens called I’m Home…What’s Next? Held in the Multi-Purpose Event Room at CUNY Hostos Community College, not only was this a welcome space for providers to share their ideas and passion for social change but also a place where reentering citizens could find others who experienced some of the same obstacles that they have and educate themselves on the services available to reentering citizens and their families.

In order to reenter society and become successful, you must "aim in a direction,” as the keynote presenter Cary Grant described from his own experiences as a reentering citizen and his success story. His success would not be possible if it were not for the Bronx Reentry Working Group. It was with Bronx Reentry that he found hope. There he discovered something about humanity: errors may be committed but you can still regain the normalcy of life after incarceration.

Successful Reintegration
Mario Rodriguez, Bronx Reentry Working Group
During a question and answer session, we were able to receive some insight from four returning citizens that prove there is life after prison, and they can be just as successful, if not more so because of their experiences. On the panel, which was moderated by Valerie Alvarez, sat Selina Fulford, Mario Rodriguez, James Braswell and Rodney Creshall. Questions were posed to them about the challenges they faced coming home, what they wished they knew before leaving prison, advice they would give to those returning home and what help have they received since their reentry.

Many of the challenges each returning citizen faces is, “Where am I going to sleep?” “How am I going to get a job?” What may seem easy to us is virtually impossible to returning citizens. This may have been the only home they ever knew before prison or the only door open to them, but the door was slammed in their face once again by legislation forbidding them from residing with anyone living in New York City Housing Projects. Rodney Creshall said readjustment was probably the experience that most stuck out in his head. Something as simple as a subway ride or a cell phone are things returning citizens must get used to. After being locked in prison, a subway ride can agitate feelings of distress. He went on to describe how a friend returning after 27 years in jail was waiting for a call from his mother. He refused to go outside because he was adamant about waiting for her call. Rodney had to explain to him that you can travel with cellphones and still receive calls. No matter how uncomfortable it is, change is necessary.

The connections and referral services provided by the Bronx Reentry Working Group and other providers was key to their success stories. Mario Rodriguez recognized that had it not been for the positive circle surrounding him and kicking his drug addiction, he would not have been able to change his life. He has been able to reintegrate into society and is now a conductor for the MTA. Rodney was able to assist the Mt. Vernon Mayor during his campaign and in honor of his community service and advocacy, he was granted a program to be able to help young people avoid the streets and prison. Selina was able to use grants and services to receive her BA from the College of New Rochelle while working at a men’s shelter after returning to society. She is now pursuing her PhD.

Health of Returning Citizens
Providers such as HealthPeople, led by Chris Norwood and her part time staff, created a Peer Reentry Task Force. This task force assists returning citizens that were released who lack medical insurance attain Medicaid cards and health services that are greatly needed. It is reported that 58% of returning citizens have chronic health issues. 26% are women who are being discharged with no HIV status. Many have substance abuse issues or a history of mental illness.

Providers such as Fordham Tremont Community Mental HealthCenter have gone so far as to assessing prisoners at Riker’s Island prior to their discharge. Shirley Rodriguez, the division director at Fordham Tremont’s Discharge Planning Department helps soon-to-be-released inmates who have mental health and/or substance abuse issues gain access to safe, temporary housing, open HRA cases and make connections with family members. They also accompany each client to their interviews and help them find permanent housing. The connections with family members is what she finds to be an important factor because that support is what is key in the most successful reintegrations. “Social workers come and go, but family is forever. So I encourage that family work with PO’s and the courts before the returning citizens’ discharge.”
Monica Morales and Richard Medina from the OsborneAssociation also offer services for those with mental health and substance abuse problems. Ms. Morales works with La Fuente Women’s Services that offers help to women who have suffered trauma from physical, emotional, mental and sexual abuse. With unstable housing and few opportunities for a better life, most of these women are former sex workers. Whether it is by smuggling drugs or selling sex, these are women in need of hope. And that is what La Fuente gives them. They are taught that aspiring to develop their gifts and talents will break through the barriers of incarceration. They will develop skills to become more independent, to discover who they are and who they can be.

Mr. Medina works for a Transition clinic at Montefiore Medical Center. Through his work, workers go to prisons to ensure that soon-to-be-discharged inmates have mental health services and housing upon their release. Studies prove that people being discharged form prison are twelve times more likely to land in the emergency room or discover a major medical condition less than twelve weeks after their release. The Montefiore-Osborne Transition Program has more than eleven locations through out the United States. These services are targeted during discharge because it is not only the individual that suffers, but also their families. And when a family suffers, the community suffers.  

Employment Opportunities
Many returning citizens are under the impression that it is impossible to find employment. But there are organizations such as Fedcap Employment Works Center, which work with returning citizens and help them gain access to gainful employment. Warwick Williams, coordinator at Fedcap assists returning citizen clients through the employment application phase. He argues that what hinders employment is the last phrase, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” When you lie, it closes doors. Or simply not being able to present your situation during the interview process impedes employment further. 74% of the clients at Employment Works have been hired after disclosing their prior criminal history. Mr. Williams goes on to say that how clients represent themselves is the key to success. Fedcap Employment Works Center assists each client with the creation of professional resumes and cover letters, also offering soft skills workshops for the interview process. Also offered are skills training, career counseling, job placement and post-employment support. Warwick describes returning citizens as having “a poverty of imagination. Give them concrete examples to show them its possible.”

Housing Opportunities
Housing is always an issue for returning citizens and there is a way to apply for safe and permanent housing. This does not apply to all but will work best for those most in need. Kim Simmons of NARCO Freedom explains HRA’s 2010e; can it work? Yes and No. It is the most helpful to those with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. People can have unrealistic expectations but caseworkers at programs such as NARCO Freedom and many other providers can help paint a different picture. To some, returning citizens are viewed as a threat to society and to their property, but being passionate about who they are now is what will open doors and bring them closer to safe and permanent housing. There are still some barriers to housing but they can be overcome with enough drive and expertise.

Hope for the Future
In order to reduce recidivism, the needs of returning citizens must be met. And this is being done by Bronx Reentry Working Group. Comprised of a large team helping those recently released, the key needs are housing, employment, health services and documentation assistance. Christopher McLaughlin, Reentry Coordinator at Bronx County Reentry Task Force and staff assist returning citizens with transitioning back to the outside. Collaborating with organizational partners, they are able to mentor discharged inmates and create successful returning citizens. Whether it is simply helping clients attain copies of their birth certificate or social security card, or accompanying them to parole meetings, CRTF is assuring that success stories are works in the making. As in other groups, signed consent is usually attained before discharge. By doing this, CRTF refer clients to partners that will be able to lead them along the right path and ensure they become success stories.   

CRTF, along with the Bronx Reentry Working Group and Project Urbanista will be lending a helping hand to reopen a Fulton Correctional under the administration of the Osbourne Association. Starting this fall, John Alvarez and Project Urbanista will be holding forums inviting groups such as CRTF, Employment Works and the local residents to build a strong reentry center at the old correctional facility. The bars and barbed wire will be removed and Fulton will become a place of hope and healing for those returning citizens and a support system for the community by creating jobs for reintegrating citizens and local residents.

Next year’s forum hopes to bring in more providers and more returning citizens. Together we can continue to strengthen and revitalize the Bronx.
- Carmen Alcantara, Bronx Community Solutions Intern

Maria Almonte-Weston, BCS Project Director and Ramon Semorile