Thursday, April 23, 2015

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.