Thursday, April 23, 2015

"I'm Still Free"

Another day, another great Center for Court Innovation event, this time in upper Manhattan as the Harlem Community Justice Center celebrated the latest cohort of graduates from its reentry court. More than 41 parolees were honored for having completed the nine month program.

I'm afraid I have written about these events on quite a few occasions so I apologize for the repetition, but this evening was another inspiring affair.  As always, I was struck by the mutual respect, gratitude and warmth between the graduates and their parole officers -- pretty much the opposite of what many people might expect the relationship between parolee and parole officer to look like.

The graduates were asked to say a few words as they accepted their certificates.  Part of the joy of these graduations is to see how each parolee reacts to this assignment.  Some are reticent.  Some make jokes.  Some speak directly to their fellow parolees.  Some speak to the rest of the audience.  And some are natural speechmakers who light up in front of the microphone.

Despite the diverse personalities of the individual parolees, their remarks tend to cluster around a few key themes -- their lives before prison, the challenges of reentry, the impact of the reentry court.  Here are a few sample quotations I jotted down from various speakers:

"I came home with nothing"

"I thought the world was against me."

"When I came here I was broken down.  I didn't want this program."

"I've been bumped and bruised."

"I've come a long ways.  I was in prison for 22 years.  The first week I came to the program I had a job...I still have a job."

"I want to thank my parole officer for treating me like a regular human being."

"Without my parole officers, I would have gone back."

"Thanks for not giving up on me."

"I'm still free."

Changing the DNA of the Courts

Earlier this week, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of Bronx Community Solutions with a lunchtime event for about 200 people.  The featured speakers included Bronx District Attorney Rob Johnson (pictured), New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, and New York City Council member Vanessa Gibson.

One of the things that any non-profit has to worry about is relevance.  This is particularly true of organizations that have experienced success in the past.  So I come to anniversary events with some trepidation.  In general, I don't think it is healthy for organizations to celebrate the past at the expense of current work or future plans.

But the Bronx Community Solutions event didn't trip this wire, at least for me.  I think the reason for this is that the problems that Bronx Community Solutions was created to address -- the over-reliance on incarceration as a response to minor offending and the disconnect between the justice system and local neighborhoods -- are more urgent and more relevant now than ever before.

All of the speakers highlighted that Bronx Community Solutions has succeeded in reducing the use of incarceration in the Bronx -- the number of misdemeanants going to Rikers Island has gone down by more than 40 percent since the project opened.  (This is something I wrote about a few months back for Talk Poverty.) Indeed, Chief Judge Lippman pointed to Bronx Community Solutions as a core component of a larger, systemic investment in alternatives to incarceration.  "We have come to understand that jail is a tool, not the tool...Step by step, we are changing the DNA of the courts," said Lippman.

As encouraging as Lippman's words were, the highlight of the event was undoubtedly the remarks by Ramon Semorile, a Bronx Community Solutions staffer who talked about the challenges he faced returning to the community after prison and the role that Bronx Community Solutions had played in helping him move forward in a positive direction.

We still have a long ways to go before we can say that we have a justice system that is fair, effective, and humane. But events like the one in the Bronx give me hope that change is possible -- for individuals, for communities, and for government systems.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Promoting Community Well Being

One of the parts of my job that I like best is when I get a chance to interact with people whose work I have read and admired over the years.  As it happens, I have had two such opportunities in the past few days.

Last week, I spent some time at the headquarters of the Marshall Project, the new criminal justice journalism project being edited by Bill Keller (of New York Times fame). And today I had a chance to sit down with Bruce Western at Harvard.  Among other things, Bruce is responsible for helping to put together the recent National Academy of Sciences study The Growth of Incarceration in the United States which has focused a great deal of attention on the problem of mass incarceration.

It turns out that there is significant overlap between Bruce's research and the work of the Center for Court Innovation.  In particular, we are both interested in thinking about how justice agencies might take a more expansive view of their roles, encouraging them to play an active role in promoting community well being at the local level.  Needless to say, this is one of the core goals of community courts.  We also talked about the challenges facing parolees returning to communities after time in prison; Bruce is currently working on a study that includes deep, qualitative interviews with parolees in Boston.

As it happens, the good folks at the Marshall Project recently ran a piece that teased out some of the preliminary findings from the Boston reentry study (entitled Meet Our Prisoners) that is well worth reading, particularly since it echoes many of the lessons that we are learning in places like Harlem and Crown Heights.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Make It Happen

It would appear that spring is arriving in fits and starts here in New York City -- every sunny, warmish day seems to be matched by a cold, grey one.  Happily, this past Friday was one of the former, so I was in an upbeat mood when I arrived at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center for a discussion about Make It Happen.

Make It Happen is typical of a certain breed of program at the Center for Court Innovation.  These initiatives, which include Peacemaking Programs, Parent Support Programs, Child Witness Support Program, Westchester Court Education Initiative and others, have limited resources (no more than 2-3 staff members) but ambitious goals.

In the case of Make It Happen, we are trying to address trauma in the lives of young men (16-24) who have experienced violence in their lives.  Funded by the federal Office for Victims of Crime, Make It Happen achieves its goal in two ways -- by engaging young people in workshops over the course of 10 weeks and by attempting to enhance the work of traditional victim service providers to encourage them to focus on the unique needs of young black men who are also crime victims.  One example of the latter is the Paving the Way conference that Make It Happen is helping to organize this coming week.

Kenton Kirby, who heads up Make It Happen, speaks eloquently about the challenges of working with a population that has traditionally been difficult for service providers to reach.  Make It Happen is a voluntary program, which puts the onus on Kirby to attract and retain participants.  That he has managed to engage dozens of young people so far is testimony to both his talent and the fact that the program is addressing a real gap in services.

Make It Happen is, of course, a companion piece to the work we are doing in Crown Heights (and other parts of Brooklyn) to prevent gun violence.  I am hoping we can continue to grow this portfolio in the months to come.