Engaging the Community
"I think the penalties [for low-level crime] need to be much higher, because otherwise people will keep committing crimes,” said one student from the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice.
“But what would they learn in jail?” her classmate replied. “You can’t keep people there forever. What they need is drug treatment or a job, stuff that can keep them from getting arrested again.”
A healthy debate about the court system’s response to low-level crime was breaking out at Bronx Community Solution’s first community advisory board meeting.
I liked the above exchange, because it shows the complexity of views that many community residents hold about the court system. The truth is that they want the court to do both - to enforce accountability for individuals who break the law, while at the same time offering them a helping hand. It’s a much more complex view than the “soft on crime, hard on crime” clichés that often dominate the debate about the criminal justice system.
For Ruben Austria, a South Bronx resident who works for Urban Youth Alliance (a faith-based employment and training organization that's done great work with our participants), the right way to strike a balance between punishment and help is to "create a sense that individuals are accountable to both the community and the court system" when they receive a Bronx Community Solutions sentence.
That might mean having participants perform community service work in neighborhoods hit hardest by quality-of-life crime, or sit down with local residents to have a respectful dialogue about the impact of so-called "victimless crime" (an idea pioneered at the Midtown Community Court). It would also mean creating job and mentorship opportunities for our clients with local employers, churches and other civic associations.
Monday's community advisory board meeting was the first of an ongoing series, attended by 25 local residents, church leaders, representatives of Bronx-based social service agencies, high school students, a prosecutor, defense attorney and a representative of the Bronx Borough President's Office.
It took place in the mock courtroom of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, an impressive school (created by the non-profit group The Urban Assembly) located around the corner from the Bronx courthouse.
Unlike police departments or prosecutors’ offices, which have staff dedicated to the job of community relations, courts have traditionally held themselves at a reserve from the public. This is in part due to judicial principles of impartiality and fairness - the job of the courts is to enforce and interpret the law, not respond to public opinion. But there’s a price to pay for this separation in terms of public faith and confidence in the justice system, as shown by surveys of public opinion that consistently rate state courts as distant and out of touch with the public.
To be sure, community engagement in the Bronx, with its 1.5 million residents and dozens of distinct communities, presents a major challenge. We'll never achieve the familiarity and small-town feeling of a place like the Red Hook Community Justice Center, where the judge greets residents by name at the local deli, prosecutors and defense attorneys coach youth baseball teams at a nearby park and court officers tutor kids after they get out of school.
Understanding that reality, one strategy is to focus on a single park, street corner or neighborhood at a time that needs help, and over time work in every area of the Bronx. Meisha Ross-Porter, the Principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, called this the "safe space" approach. "The goal is to create positive rituals and routines that keep spaces clean and kept up" said Meisha. I liked Meisha's idea, and at our next community advisory board meeting we'll discuss how to put it into practice.