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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 (crimesolutions.gov).

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.

UpNext
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.

Pinkerton
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!