Practice Development Manager Fiona Dyer continues her New York journey, taking away some valuable lessons, including the importance of a peer-led approach, and why the Brooklyn Bridge should never be attempted in heels…
Day Two of working in NYC (it’s a hard life!) resulted in several subways and cabs (even though my heels were in my bag) – there is only so far one can walk! Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I first went to visit the HQ of the Center for Court Innovation (CFCI) on the 16th floor of a smallish building in downtown Manhattan. The CFCI is a non-profit organisation, similar to CYCJ in that they make links with policy in order to improve practice. CFCI focuses on three areas of work; research, operating programmes and expert knowledge; similar to CYCJ’s three workstreams of research, practice development and knowledge exchange.
The CFCI have lots of different programmes that they run across the various boroughs within New York. These include various different Courts – youth, domestic violence and treatment – different programmes, justice centres and a youth justice board of young people.
There, the Youth Courts are not as we know them. In NY they are a ‘jury of your peers’. Young people act as the judge, advocates and jury as part of early intervention/diversion for low tariff offences. The goal of the Courts is to use positive peer pressure to ensure that young people who have committed minor offences learn accountability and repair the harm caused by their actions.The Courts are used as part of diversion from prosecution and also by schools as part of the disciplinary process as a meaningful alternative to suspension and detention.
Programmes run by the CFCI include alternative to detention programmes which supervise and support young people in the community for up to six months while they await trial. If they successfully complete the programme, this will be taken into account when determining the sentence/outcome at Court. Other programmes include diversion for 16 and 17 year olds who are first time offenders. They complete two sessions over two weeks, which can include the youth court or counselling, as an alternative to prosecution.
The Youth Justice Board is a two-year after school leadership programme that young people can volunteer to be a part of. The programme includes one year of research and one year of implementation. Topics are chosen by the CFCI and have included police and youth relationships, and youth homelessness. The CFCI also supports neighbourhood youth justice councils that are shorter-scale programmes over an eight-week period and have included themes like ‘Strengthening LGBTQ Youth and Police Relations’ and ‘Stop and Frisk’, which is also a timely topic for current stop and search policies in Scotland.
In the afternoon, I then headed south to Brooklyn to visit the Red Hook Community Justice Center. After an extra subway stop to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge (it was a must), and a cab instead of two buses, I arrived in Red Hook.
I have to admit that it was first time since arrive in NYC that I was acutely aware of the high levels of poverty and crime. I’m not sure to describe a ‘feeling in the air’ would do it justice, but there was a significantly high number of people asking for money, shouting, with obvious mental health issues. With 70% of the area made up of social housing and famous for its crack cocaine problems in the 1980s, the community justice centre is a welcome resource.
To ensure its success, the centre opened after five years of planning and engaging with the local community. The centre is in an old school that has been re-designed to be light and airy with paintings that the young people have done as part of a diversion programme, hung on the walls. Although there is a metal detector to walk though and a bag scanner, the security staff are extremely friendly and welcoming.
Open to anyone, the centre houses a community court (combining criminal, family and housing court into one), youth court, education resource, DA’s office, social work office, crisis team, Centre for Court Innovation, a programmes team, and much more. All resources are within the same building which allows for excellent partnership working.
While I was in the centre I was able to observe the community court in action and then meet with the Judge when the Court ended. Sitting at his bench, which is on the same level, I was struck by how personable the Judge was. He frequently asked defendants to approach the bench to shake their hands and congratulate them on being drug free/completing a programme, etc. When scheduling further appearances, he would ask them directly what day suited them best, and in one case, of a juvenile, he asked about the young person’s mum, if he was getting any work with his father, and then re-scheduled the young man’s hearing for the day after he was due to sit his high school diploma exams, in the same building.
When I spoke to the Judge after the Court, he advised that he had spoken to the teacher that morning for an up-date and was going out of his way to ensure the young person had a chance. Although I have to admit that it wasn’t looking good; the young man, and his probation officer, who was arguing for custody, didn’t win on that day, with other court appearances up-state (for more serious criminal offences that cannot be dealt with in the community court). I am not sure if he was at liberty to sit his exams the next week.
After seeing these differences first-hand, I think that there is a lot that we can learn from NYC and the way they work with young people who offend. We can learn from the work they do in schools and also how their community courts work, from their physical set-up to the direct interaction between Judge and defendant. People left the Court looking proud, simply from the fact that they had been told they were doing well and having their hand shook by the Judge. I am sure it would go some way to help in the change process.
Can these systems and processes be mirrored in Scotland, and if they could, do we want them to be? As a nation our crime rates are low, policy is focused on prevention and early intervention, and we do not have the same issues with poverty, guns and drugs that NYC face. That said, we’re certainly not perfect – so any change that moves us closer to best possible policy and practice has got to be a good thing.