Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Brownsville Youth Court Blazes The Path For Restorative Justice In Brownsville!

This past week, the Brownsville Youth Court began blazing the path for restorative justice practices in Brownsville! The Youth Court, comprised of 11 young people between the ages of 14 and 18, conducted community circles at Van Dyke Community Center and Langston Hughes Community Center. The Youth Court facilitated these circles with middle school youth, during after-school programming at each community center.

                     Youth Court members and youth at Van Dyke in the circle process!

The Youth Court members introduced the concept of circle practice to their younger participants, explaining that this is a space where one person speaks at a time, honestly and openly, while everyone else listens respectfully. Each person brings their own unique sense of self and experiences to the circle, contributing in their own way to the group’s shared truth. They explained how the talking piece goes around the circle, the guidelines for the conversation, and introduced their own individual opening and closing ceremonies to open and close the space. As the discussions unfolded, participants shared their hopes, dreams and fears for their own individual futures and the future of Brownsville. 

    Youth Court members and youth at Langston Hughes participate in a circle activity.

The extensive Restorative Practice training that the Youth Court members completed was evident based on their abilities to keep the attention of the participants and to encourage them to speak freely, setting the example by respecting each other and speaking freely themselves. These discussions set the bar high for restorative practices in Brownsville and demonstrated that simple communication and conversation with youth in our community can lead to powerful youth-led community change in Brownsville! 

   Youth Court members and participants closing a circle at Langston Hughes!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Brownsville Community Justice Center: BCJC and Brooklyn Defender Services hosts Re-Entry Town Hall

On April 28th several organizations from around the NYC metropolitan area gathered here in Brownsville to take part in a Re-Entry Town Hall as a part of National Re-Entry Week
Sir Isaac Newton once said “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”  All too often, societal barriers and new opportunities become life-long blockades that seem insurmountable for individuals who have had contact with the criminal justice system in this country.  Although efforts, in the realm of criminal justice reform have been the a focal point of much needed change, we as a community must take every opportunity to create pathways that not only open doors but stabilize the foundation on which those doors stand. 
Brooklyn Defender Services in Collaboration with the Brownsville Community Justice Center sought to create a space for dialogue, resources and empowerment for our returning citizens. The goal of the townhall was to ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals and their families have access to a wealth of information and support services that ultimately would afford them with an opportunity to re-acclimate back into their respective communities.  Topics ranged from finding housing to applying for Certificates of Relief/Good Conduct   
Members of the community asked poignant questions about navigating the various systems upon being released.  Additionally, Powerful presentations were given by a host of community partners including Fortune Society who is a leader in serving the community by providing housing, employment services, education programs and a plethora of other needs-based supports. Lawrence Harris of Green City Force shared a compelling personal testimony about returning home after serving 14 years in prison. “I took advantage of the community-based organizations and resources that were made available to me and Green City Force was the first organization to give me a shot!”  Lawrence is currently helping to re-build communities. He brought a group of youth corps members that he now mentors through Green City’s energy efficiency project.  Derek Slaughter of the NY Commission on Human Rights discussed the importance of combatting discriminatory practices in employment, housing, economic status and other public arenas. Jasmine Bowie and Felicia Henry of the Brownsville Community Justice Center presented on working with incarcerated youth and re-entry programs. Reverend Eddie Karim Legislative Aid to Assemblywoman Latrice Walker delivered words of encouragement and wisdom to our community.

This town hall is one step to building a “bridge” between returning citizens and home!

Monday, May 9, 2016

United Nations staff visit the Brownsville Community Justice Center By Zoe Mentel

Small, visible and tangible wins:
Getting a community and law enforcement agencies to think differently about the criminal justice system

Brownsville, Brooklyn is only 6.5 miles from the UN Secretariat building, but it feels like a world away. Though it abuts Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, gentrification and an influx of economic development have not extended to Brownsville, a 2-square mile trapezoid of land that hosts the highest concentration of public housing in the City of New York.  Though it is a vibrant community of long-time residents, Brownsville is known more for its high homicide rate than for its shops, restaurants and local businesses.
One 27 April, a delegation from DPKO’s Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions (OROLSI) visited the Brownsville Community Justice Center.  Over the next three to five years, the Center will establish a community court, with a full time judge who will engage in four key areas: diversion programmes; alternatives to incarceration and confinement; prisoner re-entry; and “crossover youth”, young people who have been involved with multiple state institutions, such as foster care and the criminal justice system.
“We don’t use the word ‘court’ in our name,” explained Director James Brodick, “We call it a ‘Community Justice Center’.  For most people, going to court means something bad has happened in your life.  We will have a court eventually, but court shouldn’t be the main reason or the only reason you come here.”  Now five years old, the Justice Center is already providing a range of services – from legal aid to youth programming – to more than 1,000 residents per year. 
Three of the DPKO staff members who visited Brownsville are justice experts from the Criminal Law and Judicial Advisory Service (CLJAS), which supports more than 670 justice and corrections advisers deployed to 12 peace operations globally.  They were seeking to learn of new practices, including trust-building with criminal justice institutions, that could be transferred or applied to post-conflict settings. 
One unique feature of the Justice Center is that none of its staff come from a legal background.  As Director Brodick explained, “Of course, once we have the court open, we will have lawyers on staff.  […]In this start-up phase, we need people who can simply ask the question, ‘How can we do our jobs better?  How do you get people to think differently about the criminal justice system?’”  The 25 full-time staff members based in Brownsville include community mediators, social workers, case workers and even an anthropologist – some of whom come from within the neighbourhood itself.
It was notable that the planning and establishment of the new court is likely to take 7-10 years, with much of that time being dedicated to building trust with the community and mobilizing resources from the local government..  This timeline would prove challenging for a peace operation, whose whole lifespan could be less than that.  The Justice Center explained that Brownsville is a community that feels it has not been well served by the justice system.  Going in and “dropping in” a court, in an area that already has a high concentration of police, as well as a detention facility, may not be well received by the community.  Years of conducting outreach and garnering local buy-in is required for a court to be accepted and, ultimately, successful.
The Center focuses on small, visible and tangible wins, such as a parking lot near the subway tracks that had become a crime hot-spot.  Through the Center’s advocacy and support, the parking lot now hosts a farmer’s market – the second highest grossing in the city – every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the spring and summer months. 

As one drives down Pitkin Avenue to Mother Gaston Boulevard, it is difficult not to notice the brightly coloured murals dotting the neighbourhood’s blocks.  These murals represent different themes – community safety and cohesion, civic responsibility  and youth empowerment – that tell a different story of Brownsville, one not defined by crime data but by resilience, strength and hope for the future