Wednesday, October 24, 2012

London Probation Trust Visits Newark Community Solutions

Yesterday morning, senior representatives of the London Probation Trust visited Newark Community Solutions. The delegation included Heather Monro, the Probation Trusts’ Chief Executive. The London Probation Trust is the largest of the 35 probation trusts across England and Wales, employing over 3,000 staff. The Trust works towards reducing re-offending and rehabilitates offenders.  Their staff work with 70,000 offenders in the community from their first court appearance to the completion of sentence.  They supervise and deliver the sentences of the courts including programs to change offending behavior and help offenders lead productive lives.  The visitors observed Newark Community Solutions cases and participated in a round-table discussion with NCS staff, Municipal Court judges, and representatives from Essex County Probation and the Center for Court Innovation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Planning a Community Court - Community Engagement

Back in 2008, planners from the Center for Court Innovation spent several months meeting with justice system stakeholders, private citizens, community advocates, block associations, and just about anyone who had an interest in community improvement. We were looking to conversations around community justice and public safety. In other words, we wanted to find out how crime affected Newarkers and what they thought the Newark Municipal Court and its partners could do about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Community Service Diary - Stand Down for Veterans

Last Saturday was another amazing day here in Newark! Newark Community Solutions joined local volunteers and more than 500 military veterans for “Stand Down of North Jersey” at John F. Kennedy Pool & Recreation Center.  The event was sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Newark’s GI GO Fund. Stand Downs provide homeless veterans with access to healthcare, mental health screening, substance abuse counseling, social services availability, religious counseling, a hot meal, a haircut and winter clothing. The goal of the program is to bring a wide range of resources together in one location so the veteran can access the various available services.

This year, NCS was on hand to help homeless veterans with their open court matters like unpaid tickets, fines and municipal court warrants. We collected contact information and scheduled appointments for participants to return to the Newark Municipal Court where NCS staff will help them navigate the court process. The event was huge success. Of the 500+ attendees, nearly 10% signed up for a follow-up appointment with Newark Community Solutions!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Newark Community Solutions – What are we trying to do? (Part 2)

In 2008, we sat down with local judges and court administrators to talk about their priorities and the opportunities presented by community justice initiatives like the Midtown Community Court and Bronx Community Solutions. Thankfully, our task wasn't as daunting as we had originally thought. Most of them were already interested in exploring new and effective solutions to problems their courts had wrestled with for years. In particular, they were looking for responses that would help defendants address the social issues that drive their offending. A comment from one judge seemed to encapsulate their dilemma "I’ve got plenty of jail for them. But sometimes, jail isn't where they belong."

So with that in mind, we eventually settled on three goals NCS would pursue.

                      Decrease The Court’s Use Of Fines Or Short-term Jail

Why? Because, neither offenders nor communities can afford fines or jail as the default response to low-level crimes. Indigent offenders can't pay the fines and cash strapped municipalities find it more and more difficult to justify $100 dollar-a-day jail stays for those with issues that can be more appropriately addressed within the community. Decades of research and experience indicate traditional sentencing schemes, especially those common in lower courts, aren’t an effective response for many offenders. This is especially true for offenders who struggle with issues like homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

                      Increase Offender Compliance 

Why? Courts, in the end, are about holding guilty parties accountable. Accordingly, many judges are only inclined to offer alternative sentence when they are convinced the offender will follow through with their order. Alternative sentencing schemes can't be seen as just an opportunity for the defendants to “game” the system. So what do we do?  In addition to using evidence-based assessment instruments and creating robust compliance protocols, we put resources (staff) in place whose responsibilities include reinforcing the court's stance on compliance and provide encouragement when participants encounter the challenges that lead to noncompliance.

                      Increase The Court’s Use Of Social And Community Service

Why? Many offenders are sorely in need of social services. At NCS, 69% of participants have a positive mental health or drug abuse screen, 29% are homeless and 45% lack a high school diploma. Their personal histories are filled with attempts at getting help that ultimately end in frustration and disillusionment.  Without the helping hand offered by NCS, most will continue to cycle through the system.

Finally, meaningful and visible community services sends a clear message to all that offenders are obliged to pay back for the harm they’ve done. And, when the community service program is run effectively, it can serve to reconnect the same offenders to the community they once harmed.*

Eighteen months in, we are doing pretty well. To date, 1900 participants have enrolled with the program. 74% percent have complied with the court’s orders and many continue to work with us voluntarily after their matter is settled.

*Among other characteristics, an effective community service program would include a robust monitoring component and leverage community partners who can help offenders attain skills or other pathways to employment.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Communiy Service Diary - "Slam Dunk the Junk"

Last week, Newark Community Solutions participants and staff joined the City of Newark and the New Jersey Clean Communities Council for Gateway Cleanup Day – "Slam Dunk the Junk”. The event, which is in its 10th year, brought residents of all ages and a variety of community organizations together to remove trash from Newark streets and plant flowers, as an expression of their unity and commitment to making Newark neighborhoods greener, cleaner, and safer.