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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!