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Thursday, July 02, 2015

BCS Helps Out at the Bryant Hill Community Garden

Justin Briggs (BCS), Gerald (WorldChangers Church) and Moises Reyes (BCS)
On Saturday, June 20th, Bronx Community Solutions invited community partners to a beautification project taking place at the Bryant Hill Community Garden. The project was the result of a collaboration with Ms. Hernandez who oversees the Garden. We collaborated with her to apply for a grant through Love Your Block, an initiative of the Citizens Committee for New York City. We were successful with our application and began planning our collaborative project. On the day of the event, BCS staff and some of their family members chipped in by helping with the garden. Four Adolescent Diversion Program community service participants worked alongside us, as part of their mandated community service. Justin took over the grill, but after two hours of work we were interrupt by rain which made us wrap up early for the day. We were nonetheless able to do some work such as: removing branches from one side of the fence, pulling weeds from around plants, cleaning and opening old walking pads so people could navigate around the garden. We spoke about coming back for a second clean up. Gerald from World Changers church is one of the partners who are willing to come back. We are aiming for Friday August 21 - stay tuned!

- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service and Initiatives


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Procedural Justice at Work in Newark

Another press clip about a partner project of Bronx Community Solutions - this time featuring Newark Community Solutions, and the procedural justice tenets they are able to employ with the help of an enthusiastic judge, Judge Victoria Pratt.

The Simple Idea That Could Transform U.S. Criminal Justice

"[There are] four principles of procedural justice: first, that people who come before a judge trust that the process is impartial; second, that they are treated with respect; third, that they understand what is going on and what they are expected to do; fourth, that they have a voice. Defendants find the procedure fairer when they are allowed to state their views. Experimental evidence shows that this is true even when they are allowed to speak only after the judge has announced their decision. No one likes to lose a court case. But people accept losing more willingly if they believe the procedures used to handle their case are fair."

Monday, June 22, 2015

Red Hook in the Press

Judge Alex Calabrese, who has presided over RHCJC for the last 15 years

Recently there was some great press in the New York Times about our partner project, the Red Hook Community Justice Center. Check it out here:

A Court Keeps People Out of Rikers While Remaining Tough

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

BCS Cleans Up and Gains New Partners

Last Thursday morning, BCS Community Service Crew Supervisor Ramon Semorile, BCS UpNext Intern Marlow and myself along with five BCS community service participants headed to Waste Management in the Bronx as part of a new collaboration. We met with Joanne Persad, Government and Public Affairs Manager of NYC Waste Management. Waste Management is responsible for the collection, transport and disposal of garbage, sewage and other waste products. This collaboration was made possible after the suggestion by John Johnson from GrowNYC, with whom Bronx Community Solutions has worked many times on educating the public about the important of recycling. 
We worked at the edge of the Harlem RiverYard Wild Life Habitat, a section of which was affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We participated by picking up trash, raking dry leaves and pruning. Our work involved preparing the ground for an organization called the New York Restoration Project, who will now be able to start planting in the area.

We are hoping to have a follow-up event where we bring participants to help with the final product! To be continued...

- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service and Initiatives

Thursday, May 28, 2015

BCS Paints Over Graffiti in the 48th Precinct

At the end of last month we received a call from Community Affairs Officer Perez from the 48th Precinct asking for our help removing graffiti in his district. We decided on a date, and on May 14 we brought a crew of seven BCS participants over to a new location, 178th Street and Park Avenue. We covered the area including the MetroNorth overpass and spanning to an area that we had painted over before, expanding on our previous work. All participants worked with enthusiasm and it was a very productive day. Some of our participants started out expressing resistance about doing graffiti removal work, but by the end of the day they were smiling and proud of their work. Enjoy the pictures below.

- Ramon Semorile, Community Service Crew Supervisor
The area, before the crew painted

The finished product

The area now looks more well-tended

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

BCS Cleans Up Bronx Stadium Garden

BCS paired up with community partners to clean up and plant near the 161st street tunnel
Last Friday, the BCS community service crew headed up to Bronx Stadium Garden located at 161st Street and Gerald Avenue (at the 161st Street tunnel). In attendance were supervisors Ramon Semorile, Omar Camacho, myself and four community service clients. We worked together with a 161st Street Business Improvement District staff member and Jennifer Beaugrand from The Bronx Is Blooming. We started by pulling weeds, pruning bushes and planting. The photos speaks for themselves as well as the passion, energy and joy of everyone involved in this project including the BCS clients.

- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service and Initiatives
Clients and supervisors headed to the site
Learning about what the day's work will entail
Preparing the ground and clearing out weeds
A community service participant digging a hole for a new plant 
The ground is now ready
Another participant does some planting
Working hard
The tunnel, after our efforts!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Bronx Community Solutions Turns 10!

Happy Birthday to BCS!  This year marks the tenth year that Bronx Community Solutions has been in operation in the Bronx.

From our humble beginnings of a staff of four, we are now a staff of over twenty, providing alternatives to jail for nearly 9,000 individuals each year.

To commemorate this anniversary, in April we hosted an event at the Bronx Supreme Court. Nearly 170 people were in attendance for the lunchtime event. Some pictures from the event are below. You can also read a write-up about the event by our Executive Director here: Changing the DNA of the Courts

CCI ED Greg Berman and Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, honored speakers at the event

From left: Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman, NYS Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (keynote speaker), Bronx City Council Member Vanessa Gibson

With BCS ED Maria Almonte-Weston, receiving a proclamation on BCS's achievements in criminal justice
Longtime BCS staff member Ramon Semorile receiving an award for his dedication to BCS, and to working to help the reentering population in the Bronx

Friday, April 17, 2015

Success Stories from the AP-8 Initiative at BCS

Over the past several months, I have been working to implement the Women’s Independence, Safety and Empowerment curriculum, (originally developed at the Midtown Community Court) here in the Bronx. The groups cover themes of stereotypes and stigma attached to having a prostitution arrest, safety and harm reduction, psycho-education on trauma and trauma reactions, as well as feeling identification and coping skills. 

Because the AP-8 population is comprised of women and trans women who may be lacking stability (for example, clients may not have consistent housing from week to week, and are often experiencing ongoing trauma and violence), adhering to a strict schedule can be understandably challenging. In order to help address this challenge, the AP-8 group schedule was changed to be more accommodating to the needs of our clients.

This proved to be highly successful and we were able to have five group members complete all four groups!

We (Kayla Johnson, social work intern and I) got exceptionally positive feedback from group members, who took pictures on their phones of the notes we recorded on the board in order to refer back to them later. A few inspiring quotes: “I feel lifted up after I come here; this is so good for me.” “I learned so much today – I didn’t know that word [dissociation] before, but it explains what I’m feeling.” “I never thought I would say this, but this room in 161 is a safe place for me.”

- Charlotte Weber, LMSW, AP-8 Case Manager

Friday, April 10, 2015

BCS Presents at Community Association Meeting

"The more the court hears from us, the more they will listen." 

This was one of the opening remarks of Mary Jane Musano, the chairperson of the Waterbury LaSalle Community Association – a group with a long history of community activism focused on increasing punitive court outcomes for low level criminal activity like graffiti and car vandalism cases.   

As part of Bronx community Solutions’ community outreach work, we were invited to present at the association's evening meeting in late March. The association represents an enclave of the Bronx that has some of the lowest criminal activity throughout the borough, within the boundaries of Community Board 10. Comprised of largely veteran community residents, this group spearheads a Court Watchers program, through the support of Senator Jeff Klein’s office. Collaborating with the local 45th Precinct and the District Attorney’s Office, members identify district crime hot spots and advocate for harsher sentencing outcomes through community letters and meetings with the District Attorney’s Office. As activists, members are alerted of district arrests and coordinate shifts to sit in arraignments as a unified front wearing T-shirts with generalized messages to the offenders. 

Bronx Community Solutions shared our overall successes and lessons learned in the value of alternatives that fit the crime and the transformative justice in empowering individuals with targeted interventions. Although it would appear that we did not make an immediate impact in influencing their views towards a less punitive position, we were able to identify the needs for graffiti clean up and look forward to further collaboration on this issue. BCS can agree on the overall goal of reducing crime in the Bronx, even if differences arise in the strategies employed to get there.

- Elizabeth Swan-Taylor, Coordinator of Court and Intake Operations

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

BCS Facilitates Dialogue Between the Court and Bronx WorkforceTraining Programs

Over the past ten years, Bronx Community Solutions has developed strong relationships with Bronx judges and have broadened their sentencing options, even designing special initiatives that address large, systemic issues. A couple of months ago, a Bronx Judge expressed to us a wish to address the employment needs of misdemeanor offenders who are arrested for selling drugs, administrative untaxed code violations and/or other crimes associated with poverty. Armed with a charge to combine innovation with tangible solutions, Bronx Community Solutions was asked by this judge to facilitate a discussion between him and relevant community programs around workforce issues, community resources, program eligibility, and general employment readiness barriers. The judge’s specific goal was to discuss the feasibility of creating a direct vocational training pathway in arraignments through community-based collaboration targeted toward the specific needs of Bronx misdemeanor defendants.

On March 12th, Bronx Community Solutions hosted a meeting with the judge and three community-based vocational programs: Phipps/Justice Corps, UpNext and Henkels & McCoy. The judge shared his observations and ideas with the program representatives, and everyone discussed the nature of the problem of under/unemployment and workforce development in the Bronx. The represented vocational programs shared program parameters on client profiles, eligibility requirements, services, placement and aftercare. The judge was able to express his viewpoint of understanding the risk-need-responsivity principles that employment barriers have on criminogenic behavior. In response, the community partners were granted access to not only understand the needs of the bench, but be part of a network working to provide clients with direct and unobstructed access to services. 
Moving forward, we will have several additional meetings to determine concrete objectives, logistics, screening tools, identify court and community stakeholders, and further program development and court buy-in. What began as a judge’s straightforward inquiry to BCS ended as a mission for innovation with concrete steps put in place.  

- Elizabeth Swan-Taylor, Coordinator of Court and Intake Operations

Monday, March 16, 2015

BCS Hosts Second Career Talk for Interns

Bronx Court Officers with BCS Interns for the second lunchtime career talk
It's another one for the books. Bronx Community Solutions hosted a second successful career talk for our interns, this time featuring two court officers who shared with them what it's like to do their work in the Bronx Criminal Court. 

With its ‘kick-off’ in October, ‘Career Talks’ are a part of a new and innovative approach to the development of a formalized internship program at Bronx Community Solutions. Despite the recent loss of funding that supported the Center for Court Innovation’s AmeriCorps program, BCS has been able to conduct ‘business as usual’ by way of recruiting intern volunteers for 6-12 month internships. Career Talks have been a way to provide interns with insightful information about a particular career track, in addition to the practical training and exposure that they receive working in a criminal justice environment. Once per month, lunch is provided for interns as well as the invited court staff member or members who present on the ‘ins and outs’ of what they do, and answer questions. 

This time around, Court Officers Dave Jennings and Andy Ayala provided intuitive information on what it means to be peace officers and discussed the rewarding as well as the negative aspects of the job. The takeaway was that they very much enjoy their jobs, which is notable as each of them have been serving the NYS Unified Court System for over a decade. The BCS interns left the career talk well-informed on what it takes to become a court officer, and what it's like to do that job every day.

- Lovis Nelson-Williams, Compliance Coordinator

Friday, March 13, 2015

BCS Embarks on Ten Weeks of Cleanup in the 44th Precinct

BCS crew painting over graffiti in the 44th precinct
This month, the Community Initiatives Department of Bronx Community Solutions was contacted by New York City Police Officers from the 44th  Precinct requesting support in the form of targeted graffiti clean-up in sections of the South Bronx, within Community Board District 4. The culmination of our partnership was a commitment on behalf of the Bronx Community Solutions Community Service Crew to embark on a 10-week, hot-spot graffiti clean-up initiative supported by police officers of the 44th precinct, the Department of Transportation, The Department of Sanitation, and community resident volunteers. Bronx Community Solutions will be providing crews of 10-15 community service participants as well as clean up supplies (jump suits, gloves, masks and paint). Community Service Crew Supervisor, Matthew Usher, and myself, will be the Clean Up supervisors for this project. 

BCS Crew Supervisors and community partners in front of the finished project at Summit Avenue
This past Wednesday, March 11th, Bronx Community Solutions conducted the first of these 10-week graffiti impact projects. Eight Bronx Community Solutions participants met at 8:00am in front of the Bronx Criminal Court where Matthew and I picked them up and headed to our first location: 1165 Clay Avenue, the site of an industrial business. Our second location was Summit Avenue, a residential area. We painted over graffiti in each of these locations, and the pictures show the impact that was made. 
Clay Avenue, before
Clay Avenue, after!
We are preparing ourselves for the next project, which will happen on Wednesday March 18th. Stay tuned for more posts on this project!

- Moises Reyes, Coordinator of Community Service and Initiatives

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Career Talk for BCS Interns

Lovis, BCS Compliance Coordinator, at left, meeting with BCS Interns and Judge Saunders
‘Just ask questions. When you see someone in the courthouse and you want to know how they got there, don’t be afraid to just ask questions.

‘Career Talk’ luncheons have become a part of the new, formalized internship program at Bronx Community Solutions. These talks provide interns in various stages of their career journeys with a wealth of realistic and concrete knowledge, as well as insight into the variety of career paths open to them within the criminal justice system. The hope is that this will provide career guidance for our interns as well as strengthen BCS's bonds with court players. Since October 2014, BCS interns have participated in organized discussions with a lawyer/social worker, a judge as well as court clerks. Next month the interns will hear from two court officers about their role in the criminal justice system, which is especially appropriate as a few of our interns have taken the court officer civil service exam.

- Lovis Nelson-Williams, BCS Compliance Coordinator

Monday, February 02, 2015

A Prison Tranformed into a ReEntry Hub

The Fulton Correctional Facility
The Bronx will soon be getting a dedicated reentry facility, fittingly housed on the site of a prison that was closed in 2011 after a marked decrease in New York's inmate population. The Osborne Association was bequeathed the Fulton Correctional Facility which will renovate to create a hub to serve the reentering population, with links to a variety of social services available in one location. Bronx Community Solutions staff members attended an event last week where the facility was unveiled by a number of Bronx political figures.

You can read more about this venture here: In the Bronx, New Life for an Old Prison

BCS remains connected to the reentering population through the Bronx Reentry Working Group, and runs a support group for reentering individuals on site.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Educational Empowerment Group at BCS

Bronx Community Solutions is creating a new social service group for adolescent clients who were disengaged or at risk of dropping out from school. The group is intended to help young people explore their educational goals, and to understand educational options that align with those goals.  Much like when becoming involved with the criminal justice system, young people can find themselves entangled in an education system that they do not fully understand. The hope of the Education Empowerment group at BCS is to provide clients with an understanding of their educational rights and the options available to them, so they are empowered to make decisions about their educational futures.

In an effort to create a comprehensive curriculum, I invited a staff attorney from Advocates for Children to train Adolescent Diversion Project staff and social work interns on graduation options and basic student rights. The training provided a necessary foundation to create a curriculum that covers basic education rights and diploma and diploma equivilency options.

Justin Briggs, a Youth Development Peer Specialist at BCS (as well as an Intake Specialist and part-time Community Service Crew Supervisor), noticed that many of the participants in his group, Motivating Youth, were most in need of educational guidance and support. That observation sprung into the development of the Education Empowerment group. The group will serve a maximum of eight young people, providing opportunities for individualized attention and referral opportunities. He will begin facilitation in February 2015.
- Rebecca Stahl, LMSW
Bronx Community Solutions Youth Justice Coordinator

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Manhattan and Brooklyn Testing Youth Diversion Program

Two precincts in Manhattan and Brooklyn just began a pilot program to divert young offenders who have been arrested on minor level crimes. Youths arrested on minor charges will have the opportunity to meet with a counselor rather than be jailed (or given a summons to appear), followed by sentencing from a judge. The hope is to provide these individuals with positive interventions while allowing them to avoid the long-term consequences of having a criminal record, without having to necessarily undergo the ordeal of jail and arraignment. You can read about it here, and pasted below: Diversion for Teens in NYC

In the Bronx, BCS's Adolescent Diversion Program provides the courts, especially the dedicated court part, youth-specific sentencing alternatives to jail for low level crimes. The Bronx does not, however, have this kind of diversion that provides services without jail and arraignment first.

Teenagers to See Counselor, Not Judge, for Minor Crimes

Teenagers arrested for minor crimes will soon be diverted to counseling before they ever come before a judge under a new pilot program in Brooklyn and Manhattan, prosecutors said on Tuesday.
The program will apply to 16- and 17-year-olds arrested for the first time for low-level offenses, like jumping a subway turnstile, shoplifting or trespassing, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said.
Those defendants will be offered a deal: Enter a counseling program run by the Center for Court Innovation and the charges will be dropped before arraignment, Mr. Vance said, speaking at a Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum.
Mr. Vance said a young person who had done nothing more serious than fail to pay a subway fare should not receive “a trip downtown and a docket number, but a real intervention in his life, to put him on a positive path forward.”
The Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, said the pilot project would build on the success of a diversion program for teenagers started in 2013 in the Brooklyn arraignment courts by Judge George A. Grasso. That program in its first year diverted more than 160 teenagers charged with minor crimes into counseling.
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said a young person who has done nothing more serious than fail to pay a subway fare should not receive “a trip downtown and a docket number, but a real intervention in his life, to put him on a positive path forward.” Credit Brian Harkin for The New York Times

Mr. Thompson said the hope was to intervene even earlier, offering first-time offenders a chance to go to counseling before they even appear in court.
Youths deemed eligible will go to two afternoon sessions of counseling at community justice centers, said Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that provides alternatives to incarceration. Some of the defendants will go through mock trials with other teenagers; others will be given individual counseling and community service.
The pilot program will start in February in two police precincts: the 25th on the Upper West Side and the 73rd in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It will be evaluated after three to six months, Ms. Herman said.
The project, tentatively called Project Reset, comes as public opinion has begun to waver on New York City’s prolonged crackdown on minor crimes. It also comes amid a series of several steps taken recently to reduce the number of low-level offenders clogging the courts.
Mr. Thompson announced last year that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana cases. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton has sharply curtailed the practice of stopping pedestrians and frisking them for weapons and drugs in high-crime neighborhoods, which critics maintain discriminates against minorities.
The city has several diversion programs for nonviolent defendants. In most of them, however, social workers comb through people awaiting arraignment in court to find candidates.
It was Judge Grasso, a former deputy police commissioner, who first proposed the idea of diverting some teenagers before arraignment, Deputy Police Commissioner Susan Herman said.
Under past practice, many first-time low-level offenders were held in jail for a day. At arraignment, prosecutors would usually agree to drop charges if the person avoids arrest for six months, a resolution known as “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.”
The new program will let police officers and prosecutors steer teenagers into counseling, leaving them with no criminal record if they complete it, Mr. Vance said.

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 (

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