What are they thinking?

So I get this e-mail from the Center for Court innovation today. They're a very well-funded very official arm of the Unified Court System of the State of New York. Very serious business.

And they've started a blog.

And they very sweetly asked me to take a look.

Now the last thing I want to do is piss on parades or denigrate other nice people looking to do good work, but they had to have anticipated that this really wasn't up my alley. CCI, after all is devoted to problem solving courts and I'm, well, not a big fan.

But being sporting, and having too much time on my hands this week (see posts below to get a sense of the crap filling my days) I decided to take a look.

And right there, embedded in one of the first postings is the fundamental problem with CCI and the criminal justice system in general. It's the essential divide between us.

Here's the post (slightly shortened at ellipses)

Inside a Social Service Class

"I was selling cigarettes on the street."

"I got into a fight with my sister."

"The police found weed in my car."

It's Friday afternoon, and the 12 participants in the Bronx Community Solutions social service class are describing the arrest that brought them into our program...

"How many of you believe that your behavior and choices had a role to play in your arrest?" Maria (who's teaching the class) asks. Eight hands shoot up. "Big time," one adds.

Maria zones in on one young man who hasn't raised his hand, the one who earlier talked about his marijuana use. He's a harder case - he's convinced he was set up by someone in the neighborhood and that his smoking is not a problem.

"Have any of your friends or family asked you to stop smoking?" Maria asks.

He thinks for a moment. "I've had girlfriends tell me I'm a different person after I smoke," he admits.

"Anyone else?"

"Yeah, my mother."

He's starting to sweat. His pose of cool indifference is beginning to wear a little thin...

After the class is over, about half of the participants stay to speak with Maria. Three sign up for a job training program. The older man who spoke earlier tells Maria his Medicaid has expired and he needs help replacing his inhaler. He'll go back with Maria to her office, where she'll call her contact with the Department of Health...

That's how we measure success with a social service class - how many people stick around after the class is over to ask for help. We don't know how many will follow up, but it's a start.

posted by Aubrey Fox, Project Director at 11:53 AM on Apr 21 2006

Ok. Seems like a sweet post, detailing a lovely caring woman conducting a kindly court-mandated class. But this is what makes me crazy is hiding in plain sight in the very first sentence:

Can you tell me why, in a community with an unemployment rate like there is in the Bronx we are arresting people for "selling cigarettes on the street."? I've seen hundreds of those sorts of cases (along with a guy arrested for selling cookies, and another arrested for selling icys.

Moreover why is it that such a person need a "program" of any sort particularly one which seeks to assert individual responsibility?

The post, happily says that hands shot up when they asked ""How many of you believe that your behavior and choices had a role to play in your arrest?"

But why is that the question?

Sure selling cigs on the street caused that arrest. But why aren't we asking the larger questions? Questions like why are our criminal justice priorities arresting them rather than big time mob smugglers, or corporate tax evaders who cost us thousands of dollars for every penny the cig seller makes?

The honest answer is that they are sitting in that crappy little room enduring this court mandated "solution" because OUR behavior and our choices put them there. Our bad criminal justice choices and terrible policing policies.


ACS said...

Making these people 'take responsibility' is the answer because the system finds it easier to try and 'tackle' that problem.

At a panel discussion I asked an AUSA why they did jump outs in DC in bad neighborhoods where they basically tackle poor people in black neighborhoods, but don't do it in white neighborhoods, or do other sorts of stings there to combat the very real sales and addictions there. He readily admitted, they do it because they can get away with it and because it is easy. More wealthy people are harder to get at, so they simply shoot the fish in a barrel rather than tackle the more difficult targets who are doing the same thing. But this doesn’t translate to why the state expends so many resources on minor crimes that do not seriously impact society but fails to tackle the more serious offenders.

Anonymous said...

I would put public indecency or "peeing in public" as one of those non-crimes that people get prosecuted for. Seriously, where else is a homeless person supposed to pee? Particularly given the lack of public facilities in most cities. A prosecutor friend of mine wanted to dismiss this charge, and the arresting officer who was present in court got really mad about it. She dismissed it anyway. But a lot of prosecutors won't.