An Alternative Approach to Juvenile Recidivism: Harlem Community Justice Center and the Juvenile Reentry Program

 

The United States of America’s criminal justice system has been criticized extensively for not providing an effective solution to crime. The total number of people that are incarcerated is the highest in the world (two million), and every year it is growing at unfathomable rates. The system continues to fail, the prisons are overcrowded, and the rate of recidivism is increasing especially with the juvenile population. According to the 2000 Census, minority youth in the United States represent 23% of the total population aged ten to seventeen. However, this same group comprises nearly 52% of the population of juveniles who are detained or in some form of confinement. The numbers are even more alarming in states with larger minority populations. While reasons for this failing model of justice continue to be debated, certain communities have taken initiative by creating alternative models to lower the recidivism rates of the juvenile population. 

The Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC) is an innovative and problem-solving approach to the traditional court systems that allows members from the surrounding community and neighborhood to be an integral part of the judicial process. The community court focuses on creating a new relationship within the justice system and with outside stakeholders in order to use the power of the justice system to apply this structure to local problems. 

The Juvenile Reentry Network, located within the HCJC, is a community-based reentry program that uses an array of mechanisms to address the difficulties juveniles who are coming from state placement face, when returning to their communities within East and Central Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Lower Eastside. According to Raye Barbieri, the Program Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center, those are the most problematic communities in Manhattan struggling with poverty and crime. For many juveniles, leaving the structured environment of placement and reentering an often chaotic home life and the same negative influences that contributed to their behavior in the first place can be incredibly daunting. 

The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) reveals that 81% of returning boys and 46% of returning girls commit new offenses within three years of their release. Once these juveniles reach adulthood, criminal sanctions are imposed and life opportunities decrease dramatically for repeat offenders. 

The barriers and difficulties that the young offenders enrolled into re-entry program will encounter once they are released from state placement revolve around school, family and environment. In terms of education, it is often hard to find a placement for a child with a criminal record, as schools tend to be reluctant to enrol young offenders.  Barbieri explains that because of implemented education policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act, test scores are tied to funding, and schools do not want to accept those kids they assume will bring their test scores down. 

At home, children often re-enter dysfunctional and chaotic households. Children in detention often come from the most difficult families—single parental households with absent fathers (often incarcerated) or households where parents often struggle to make ends meet and do not have the time or energy to provide emotional support for their off-spring. Raye Barberei states that other specific issues in Harlem pertinent to the re-entry program include the “self-sustaining poverty cycle, a culture of failure, a lack of accountability and learnt helplessness.” In addition, mental illnesses—often recurring problems—are many times mislabelled, misunderstood, and mishandled, thus leading to recidivism and other severe consequences.

The Juvenile Reentry of the HCJC program deals with the juvenile and these human hurdles after the juvenile is out of state placement and in the hands of an after-care worker and OCFS. In a regular reentry program there is no court.. Usually the juvenile is only assigned an after care worker from OCFS and the worker simply monitors the juveniles activities with in their community. This demands less accountability from the juvenile to the case-worker and places the juvenile in a  susceptible environment with inadequate resources and support. Unlike the conventional method of reentry, the HCJC uses the traditional court system to create a supportive atmosphere and space , providing a variety of solutions to the child. 

The Harlem Community Justice Center outlines three principles that need to apply to have a successful re-entry process: early planning, individual treatment and coordination. Most juveniles who re-enter placement return to the same communities that they left and therefore a placement is an opportunity to prepare the young person and the family to address the challenges he or she will face when released. Key players involved with each young person meet early to create a plan that reflects his or her individual strengths and passions in order to allow the participant to be more engaged with the program and to take more initiative to succeed. A leadership model is constructed, where kids are not perceived as victims, but as resources for their own success. Judge Karrolyn Belkis, the hearing and administrative judge of the juvenile re-entry program, told one juvenile at his initial hearing, “ Even though we are here to support you, ultimately the choice is up to you if you want to be successful. How strong in character can you be to say you don’t want to get into the same problems and say no and still be your own person, your own man. When you go out there you’re going back to the same community, the same family, and the same environment. Nothing has changed out there, it’s all the same, and it’s all about making the right choices and decisions.”  Program participants receive an array of additional services and focused, coordinated attention from court staff and social workers—all geared towards creating the structure, discipline, and care that can usher at-risk juveniles into productive, healthy adulthoods

A strong family support system is seen as crucial to a juvenile’s successful reintegration and rehabilitation. To prepare parents for upcoming challenges, court staff and parents meet during the weeks leading up to the young person’s release to create a family-strengthening plan that includes identified family support systems, skill-building opportunities, and referrals for resources, both at the Center and with the network of affiliated partners and providers. A home visit further determines the family’s preparedness to receive the returning youth. Directly after the juvenile is released there is a hearing concerning the process of how the juvenile’s reentry will be handled and what programs will be required of the juvenile to complete. Staff members and family are part of this process in creating a plan, and are an inclusive support system that usually is not available to the child. The strengthening plan is later incorporated in a Parent Contract, a document outlining the parent’s agreement to supervise the youth, participate in services and attend hearings.

The program continually supports parents and engages them in different ways. Omarax Rosa, a HCJC re-entry case worker, is the go-to person for parents where they can report problems, receive support to enforce the rules and regulations of both the house and the court, and simply just vent about frustrations and difficulties.  The court has also recently incorporated a Family Engagement Facilitator, responsible for contacting the families and engaging them into a constructive dialogue with the child. Diana Goldberg has just started working as such a facilitator. She is a certified social worker and has had  years of experience with chemical dependency, preventing kids to be put in a foster care and reunifying the juveniles with the families. 

She highlights the importance of mothers to come with children to the hearings, to demonstrate  the benefits of coming together and sharing any problems. There are a lot of behavioral problems in this community related to chemical substance abuse by the kids as well as their families, Goldberg says, and therefore bringing changes in this respect is a challenge. The facilitator also leads talking circles for mothers of participants where they exchange ideas, express challenges, and become their own network of resources. For families identified as requiring intensive therapeutic intervention, the Children’s Aid Society is contracted to provide a designated family therapist. 

The team approach enhances communication between the involved agencies. Regular placement that is not part of the problem solving court, usually have difficulty communicating or do not have any communication or coordination and because of this they often do not work together well. They do not know when the other organization scheduled an appointment or what the other organization is doing, so appointments can overlap, be missed, and multiple can be scheduled in one day. This allows the juvenile to get frustrated and not go, fail, or get in trouble because he did not show up to one appointment despite the fact he had conflicting appointments. It is a system that does not provide support or concrete expectations.  The problem solving court allows for coordination in order to create a comprehensive system that both the agencies and juvenile can easily follow. The court combined with this unique team approach is what has made the program different and successful. 

Accountability is another incredibly important component to the success of the individual and the program. The participant is held accountable and responsible to comply with a Youth Service Plan that details all program requirements: school enrollment and attendance, participation in assigned Boys and Girls Club activities, compliance with all service referrals, compliance with curfew, attendance at weekly case management meetings, and attendance at biweekly court hearings. These plans ensure that both the youth and parent have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and of the consequences of non-compliance, which can include electronic monitoring, extended curfews, community service, and—ultimately—mandated returns to state placement. Accountability goes further than the juvenile upholding its responsibilities to the court, but also ensures that the court and its staff members stay accountable to the participant.  

The court makes sure that the service providers are following through with its obligations to the juvenile. In one instance, during a court hearing, a juvenile revealed to his OCFS case worker, Roy Harvin,  that there were problems with those  managing his worksite. The case manager recognized this as discriminatory policy and as unprofessional behavior that affected the juvenile’s ability to do his work effectively. Judge Belkis and the case worker did not punish him for what was uncontrollable to the juvenile but instead told him, “Take mental notes of how not to manage and administrate when you become older. We support you, we congratulate you, and you are doing a good job. This is frustrating, but remember the thing about being patient is the reward of patience.” This attitude creates a mutual relationship fostered by the court that actively monitors what is happening between youth, family, and staff members, and that emphasizes the power the case worker has to speak up for the juvenile.

Regular hearings in a court setting and close contact with the family and schools are aimed at creating the concept of responsibility, setting expectations and keeping kids accountable. Juveniles appear before a hearing officer every two weeks for a case conference that all partner agencies attend. Participants discuss the youth’s progress and encourage positive behavior and the seriousness and authority of a court setting reinforces the importance of the program and its success. The judge proactively asks questions, seeking information about each case, and exploring a greater range of possible solutions to the problems that arise. The judge makes the purpose to create a long term relationship with the juvenile, and to create a different type of dialogue from the conventional courts. 

The purpose of the hearing is not to respond to a problem, but to create a relationship and dialogue between the judge and juvenile that usually does not happen. It is a dialogue where the judge communicates with the juvenile in a tone and manner where he/she sees the juvenile as having potential, dignity, and the ability to succeed.  It is an open forum where the juvenile can take about his/her issues, what his/her struggles are, where he/she needs helps, and simply just to check in and see how they’re doing. “Forgetting about what all the training materials and literature says, I am talking to these kids as an individual parent and a citizen knowing that this is what we need to do. We need to start from a premise that the kid can succeed, and not a belief that they will fail,” reflects Judge Belkis on the type of positive dialogue that happens in her court room. 

Harlem Community Justice Center keeps the track of its effectiveness and has an evaluation program. Since 2003 there have been 97 program admissions to date. Through June 30th, 2006 a total of 14 youth successfully exited the program in the last year and most of them have remained arrest free. While the average rate of re-offending among this population is 81% for boys and 46% for girls within three years of release, the Juvenile Reentry Network’s re-arrest/recidivism (defined as new arrests within one-year post program completion) rate  is currently 36% (5 out of 14) for the period up to June 30, 2006. Of these five re-arrested youth, one was charged with a violation, two were charged with misdemeanours and two were charged with felonies.  Only one of the five arrests was for a violent offence. On September 26th twenty more kids who have successfully negotiated the program will also be graduating. For HCJC graduation is an important element to the program because it is continuing the support and acknowledging the success of the participants. As Judge Belkis puts it, “I want these to kids to feel that at one point someone in their life told them they were somebody, and that they believe that they are somebody. This is what I am about.”

 

References

 

1. Interview with Raye Barbieri, the Program Director of the Harlem Community Justice Center, NYC, July 27,       2006.

2. Interview with Judge Karrolyn Belkis - at the HCJC, NYC, August 1, 2006.

3. Interview with Diana Goldberg - the Family Enhancement Facilitator at the HCJC, NYC, August 1, 2006.

(all interviews were conducted at the HCJC in East Harlem, NYC)

Report by the Youth Justice Board of the Center for the Court Innovation, Stop the Revolving Door: Giving Communities and Youth the Tools to Overcome Recidivism. Recommendations on Juvenile Reentry in the NYC, January 2005. (available at http://www.courtinnovation.org) 

Donald J. Farole, Jr., Nora Puffett, Michael Rempel, Francine Byrne, "Applying Problem-Solving Principles in Mainstream Courts: Lesson for the State Courts" The Justice System Journal, Vol. 26, Number 1, 2005.

Center for the Court Innovation, http://www.courtinnovationcenter.org 

Aubrey Fox, "State Court Judges and Problem-Solving Courts." In: A Problem-Solving Revolution: Making Change Happen in State Courts. Published by the Center for Court Innovation, 2004.

http://www.correctionalassociation.org

New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), Annual Report, 2002.  

New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), Annual Report, 2004. 

Harlem Community Justice Center - Juvenile Reentry Network Case Studies, 2006.

 

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