Monday, November 7, 2016

Restorative Justice through Financial Counseling

By: Michelle Morillo

Restorative justice is about more than making offenders pay their debts to society. It’s about the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. That means, in part, making sure that those emerging from incarceration have the knowledge and skills to re-integrate back into society in ways that add value to their communities and keep them from falling back into the court system. At Midtown Community Court, financial counselors like me provide restorative justice to fathers who want to play a bigger role in their children’s lives and are determined to do the right thing, but just don’t know how.

I have always had a passion for helping others, which makes my job as a Financial Counselor with Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners a great fit. At Midtown Community Court, I meet with thousands of New Yorkers through the NYC Financial Empowerment Center. I provide free counseling services to educate, empower, and protect their resources, and I help them build assets and secure the most out of their financial resources as they work to gain economic stability. I also work to addresses issues of financial inclusion, homelessness, and reentry support.

Many of the men I counsel are formerly incarcerated fathers in the UPNEXT Program, a workforce development and fatherhood re-engagement service. These men are typically unemployed, estranged from their children, and struggle with other obstacles to reunite their families. Most owe thousands of dollars in child support arrears, sometimes in the tens of thousands, plus restitution fines and other fees from the courts. Because of their criminal histories, debt and unemployment, most have bad credit or no credit at all. Many don’t have bank accounts, either, often because they are afraid their funds will be confiscated to pay their child support arrears. They want to jump back into employment as quickly as possible, but even when they do, they don’t have budgets that work to keep them on track, let alone help them get ahead.

As part of the UPNEXT program, I offer a two-part seminar: “Credit Tricks and Traps” and “Budgeting and Banking.” We talk about banking, budgeting, credit and debt management, and about tax benefits they may not know they are entitled to. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit can be a huge boost to my clients’ ability to support themselves and their families. Then I meet individually with each father. Together, we look at their credit reports. Sometimes we’re able to dispute some of the bad credit in their histories, or get a court fee waived on the grounds of time served. We figure out a path towards paying down their child support arrears and other debts. We build a budget that is within their means without being unrealistically restrictive. Then I help them find affordable financial services: free or low-cost bank accounts, secured credit, credit building products, and any other resources they’re eligible for.

Our record of success together speaks for itself. In fact, Neighborhood Trust recently increased my time at Midtown allowing me to work with more struggling fathers than ever. In the last six months, I’ve provided 128 individual hour-long financial counseling sessions to 89 people, including 23 non-custodial fathers participating in Midtown’s UPNEXT Program. That’s in addition to teaching 5 workshop series in that same time period!

My main motivation comes from coaching others and watching them succeed. Many of them go on to gain employment, and their work with me gives them a strong foundation to rebuild trust in the financial system and accomplish their financial goals. And they feel more confident to become engaged with their families for the first time in years. That’s the most important outcome for me!

Restorative justice isn’t easy. It’s hard work for the court system, for me, and especially for the fathers I counsel. But if we can reunite even a few of these men with their families and keep them from going back into the prison system, it’s worth every minute!

Michelle Morillo is a Supervisor/Senior Financial Empowerment Counselor with Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners in New York City.  She joined Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners as a Financial Counselor in 2007. Neighborhood Trust is one of the nation’s leading providers of financial empowerment services and products. Their mission is to empower low-income individuals to become productive participants in the U.S. financial system and achieve their financial goals.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Justice through Procedure: Increasing Public Trust and Fairness in our Courts

By Mohammed Alam

What is Procedural Justice?
Administering justice is rooted in the belief that the process will be fair. However, many trial and criminal courts across the country have acquired a bad reputation for being overly bureaucratic, dehumanizing, and difficult to understand. Research conducted by the Center for Court Innovation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance shows that, when defendants believe that the process is fair, they are more likely to comply with court rulings. Increasing courts’ transparency and related efforts to make them more accessible, engaging, and fair are hallmarks of procedural justice. Procedural justice can take many forms. In making signs and directions easier to understand and follow, court users are able to more easily navigate the building, which will lead to more defendants signing up for and completing their mandates. Proper communication in the courtroom has a significant impact: if a defendant does not understand what is going on in their case, they are less likely to trust the court process. Understanding the critical role of procedural justice in the criminal justice system, we undertook a comprehensive review here at Midtown to see how we can improve our practices.

Midtown’s Procedural Needs
Established in 1993 in a historic NYC courthouse, the Midtown Community Court (MCC) is an operating project of the Center for Court Innovation and one of the nation’s first “problem solving courts.” The last few years have seen the courthouse undergo substantial renovation, which has given us a natural opportunity to address issues of signage, navigability, and usability—all aspects of procedural justice. To take full advantage, we formed a committee with representatives from various departments within our court to bring a diversity of thought and a better understanding of procedural concerns. The committee of five includes Amanda Rivera, Senior Case Manager; Lauren Marker, Social Worker; Sonia Chowdhury, Resource Coordinator; Sebastian Bullock, Employment Outreach Specialist; and Mohammed Alam, External Affairs Manager. The committee began by analyzing all potential procedural issues at the Midtown Community Court and formulated a series steps to implement short- and long-term goals.

Our First Steps
During the first three months, we addressed and improved the very first interactions defendants have with our court. A court user’s first impression can color how they will react throughout the duration that they are in the building. Unlike some other courts, Midtown Community Court has many different programs, partnerships, and offices within the building. People might arrive here either to attend court, have sessions in our clinic, reschedule appointments, attend class in our fatherhood program, or do community service. Recognizing this, we made sure that court officers at the entrance have sufficient information about these details so that they can direct visitors and answer questions effectively. In addition, we addressed the issue to information availability in the courtroom. We have placed two large flat screen monitors which display a presentation that address most frequently asked questions and concerns that defendants may have. The presentation details the setup of the court, who the key players are and where they are stationed, in addition to rules of the room and resources for them to contact.

The Next Six Months
Over the course of the next six months, we worked to improve the signage and décor of the Midtown Community Court, using the framework of the Red Hook Community Justice Center as a model. Although Midtown Community Court is housed in a landmarked building from the 1880s with an impressive exterior façade, the interior is less harmonious. As such, the Procedural Justice Committee focused on interior issues regarding design, navigability, and user-friendliness. We replaced mismatched and outdated signs with temporary signage that is uniformly formatted. Now, there are visible signs as you first enter the building which bear accurate security instructions, rules of the courtroom, and directional signs. Visitors also see a full directory of the building in order to better understand what is located on each floor. We worked to open the floors that are accessed by clients and defendants so as to feel more welcoming. Our light-filled meeting and conference rooms all have large computers to display information and dry erase boards to utilize during counseling sessions. Our UPNEXT classroom has a state of the art interactive smart board in addition to a computer lab, allowing participants to have access to technology to assist in skill building and job placement. Lastly, we contacted all of our partner agencies and organizations for information and packets of resources to create a comprehensive resource wall.

Long-term Goals
The committee is now looking to our one-year goals. As part of the final phase of construction, we are working with a design firm on permanent signage that will solidify many of the temporary upgrades the committee has made. In addition, we hope to periodically host trainings for all staff members on topics that can improve the services they provide, including effective communication strategies, cultural competency, and trauma-informed practices. We are working towards translation of more key documents into more languages to make the delivery of information more inclusive.The last phase of our one-year goals is to actively engage with participants, clients, and defendants through conversations and surveys. This process will help us compile and analyze their feedback and determine the effectiveness of the upgrades and changes we have made to the procedures of the court. 

Based on their feedback, we will be able to adjust and further improve on the flow of information, the navigability, and the administrative process of the court to be more welcoming, understandable, and procedurally fair. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Renewing Justice, A Spring Reception

By Mohammed Alam

On Tuesday, May 17th the Midtown Community Court hosted a spring reception at the nearby Empire Steak House.  The event, entitled “Renewing Justice,” highlighted Midtown Community Court’s many new programs, partners, and faces.  Project staff, partner organization representatives, community leaders and elected officials toasted the arrival of our new judge, the Hon. Stephen Antignani, and recent accomplishments such as the start of Project Reset, a new Young Adult Diversion Part, new employment opportunities for our UPNEXT fathers, art-based community service projects for youth, a renewed commitment to enhancing public safety, and innovative community engagement events.

The reception also featured remarks by Hon. Corey Johnson and the Hon. Helen Rosenthal of the New York City Council, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, all long-time supporters of Midtown Community Court. 

Dipal Shah, Director of the Midtown Community Court, Hon. Corey Johnson Member of the New York City Council, and Mohammed Alam, External Affairs Manager of the Midtown Community Court.

Hon. Judge Stephen Antignani viewing paintings created by the children of UPNEXT fathers.

Dipal Shah, Hon. Gale Brewer President of the Borough of Manhattan, and
Courtney Bryan, Director of Criminal Justice Operations for the Center for Court Innovation.

Hon. Corey Johnson, Hon. Judge Richard Weinberg, past Midtown Community Court judge, and
Greg Berman, Executive Director of the Center for Court Innovation.

Our partners from Amalgamated Bank.

Jeff Hobbs, Deputy Director of Midtown Community Court, Courtney Bryan, and
George Ntim from New York Marriott Marquis.
Hon. Helen Rosenthal Member of the New York City Council, and Haddijatou Waggeh, Youth Justice Coordinator of the Midtown Community Court, celebrating our Groundswell mural project.
Laura Leone of the Institute for Family Health and Kayla Wang from New York Asian Women’s Center.
Sharon Jasprizza from the Midtown South Community Council.
Adam Mansky, Director of Operations for the Center for Court Innovation and
Shawn Waterman from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. 
The Midtown Community Court Family.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Manhattan Human Trafficking Intervention Court

By Afua Addo and Miriam Goodman

Miriam Goodman is the Assistant Director of Anti-Trafficking and Trauma Initiatives, and Afua Addo is the Women’s Services Coordinator, at the Center for Court Innovation. This blog post is apart of Midtown Community Court's monthly social media issue campaign. This month's issue campaign focuses on services for women who are justice involved. 

Midtown Community Court houses the Manhattan Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC). The HTIC is a specialized court for people arrested for prostitution related charges. MCC offers alternative to jail programming for people in the HTIC. Programming is based on the principles of strengths based and trauma informed care. Trauma informed care recognizes the prevalence and effects of trauma on individuals, and responds with an intervention that is appropriate and not harmful. Strengths based response incorporates a person’s values and positive attributes into the discussion of confidence and skill.

Our program begins with an individual assessment. Based on the individual client needs we then provide short-term individual and/or group counseling and referrals to necessary community based services.

While there are many things to highlight about this work, we wanted to honor the incredible resiliency of the people we work with. Many of the HTIC clients have experienced continuous and unimaginable trauma and yet are still able to love, laugh, and grow. Resilience can be described as the ability to overcome challenges and setbacks and turn them into opportunities for growth and development. Every day our participants demonstrate the core characteristics of resiliency: a growing sense of purpose, a driving force for life vision building, perseverance, and an ability to view the glass as half full when half empty, and the belief in one’s self despite what she has been through. 

It is truly empowering, energizing, and an honor to work with people who consistently demonstrate such incredible strength to keep going.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Criminal Justice: Treating Children as Children

By Amanda Roaf

The idea of treating children as children has a complex application in the criminal justice system. It is even further complicated in New York State by the woefully low age of criminal responsibility that has been established at 16 years of age. Until 2012, young people coming through the criminal court system in New York City on misdemeanor charges were generally mandated to complete adult sanctions. Four years ago, something radical happened within our system. The Chief Judge of New York State at the time, Jonathan Lippman, called upon experts already working with court-involved youth, including the staff at Midtown Community Court (MCC), to create pilot court parts tailored to the specific developmental needs of young people. In nine locations across New York State, 16- and 17-year-olds in court for violations and low-level misdemeanors now had access to age-appropriate resources and sanctions through the Adolescent Diversion Part (ADP). This innovation would prove to be a catalyst for system change in the years to come.

Research has informed this and many of the other positive shifts in how our system treats youth. Studies have clearly laid out the differences between the brain of an adolescent and that of an adult, and how these differences impact behavior. While our young people are smart, creative, and resilient beyond belief, they are also more likely to make risky or impulsive decisions, succumb to the influence of their peers, and experience significant mood swings – all due to normative brain development. These scientific findings have greatly informed how our court operates and how we view alternative sanctions and sentencing for young people. Additionally, the growing international body of research on the principles of risk, need, and responsivity has also greatly informed our practices. We now know that people are particularly responsive to court-mandated interventions that target their specific areas of need and match their level of risk of recidivism.

The success of ADP, along with continued developments in research, has paved the way for advancements that are increasingly adaptive and responsive to the needs of young people. This month the Young Adult Part was opened at MCC to expand access to developmentally sound mandates to youth ages 18-20. The prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and MCC social workers who collaborated to form ADP now work together to ensure that all eligible youth ages 16-20 have access to services that are supportive of their needs and also maintain accountability to the community. Young people can be mandated to perform arts-based community service, engage in groups designed to teach affect-regulation skills, or participate in counseling services that assess more deeply for signs and impact of trauma.  

There have been many exciting developments in how we treat court-involved young people in our city and our country. From the local changes including Project Reset, a pre-court diversion program, to the newly opened Young Adult Part at MCC, stakeholders in the city are working hard to put better options in place for youth. On a national level we have seen exciting reforms to policies impacting youth such as banning solitary confinement and mandatory life sentences for some juveniles. We are seeing a major shift in the way our criminal justice system incorporates the principles of brain development and risk, need and responsivity. We at MCC see the impact that these changes, large and small, have had on the youth we work with every day and we are grateful to be a part of continued progress and reform. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Motivational Interviewing Through the Eyes of the Resource Coordinator

By Sonia Chowdhury

Being a community court Resource Coordinator (RC) can be rewarding, challenging, and taxing all at the same time. The job requires one to work in a fast-paced environment, liaise with key courtroom players, and interview a variety of people awaiting arraignment — all while maintaining an objective, neutral perspective. When attorneys ask me to screen their clients for services because the Assistant District Attorney is recommending some amount of jail time, I try my very best to craft a recommendation of jail alternatives for the judge that are best suited to the defendant’s needs. When I had the opportunity to attend my first training on ‘Motivational Interviewing’ at the CUCS Academy for Justice Informed Practice a few weeks ago, I was curious to understand better how the technique impacts my work.

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a client-centered, goal-oriented approach to elicit positive behavior change and explore and resolve ambivalence. It is a strategy many social workers and therapists use to get their clients to talk and focus on behavior change. The notion of motivational interviewing began in the late 1980’s by William Miller, PhD. and Stephen Rollnick, PhD, who worked with people that were struggling with chronic substance abuse issues. Motivational interviewing is now considered an evidence-based approach and has been widely practiced in different settings where behavior change is the goal.

MI can be used effectively when people are at the ‘pre-contemplation’ and ‘contemplation’ phases of the change process. Essentially, they are either not thinking of change at all or having very few thoughts about change; this is the majority of the makeup of the population we serve. MI involves developing a “way of being with clients”: creating a partnership and making it less of a power interaction; exploring autonomy and the person’s capability for self-direction; seeking and acknowledging the person’s strengths and efforts while cultivating a compassionate and judgment-free setting. The goal is to have the client draw out their own ideas and desires for their own reasons to change by asking open-ended questions without giving the client advice, answers or imparting wisdom.

As a Resource Coordinator, the defendants I interview are often in police custody and awaiting arraignment, and MI is truly essential to my work. Creating an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion in what may appear to be a threatening and an alarming setting for many defendants is step 1. Collaborating and developing a partnership with a client, as opposed to confrontation (which triggers resistance,) sets the tone for a healthy and understanding relationship. Lecturing, advising, educating, and problem-solving and, yes, even counseling are all counterproductive to the goals of motivational interviewing. The idea is to have clients evoke their own personal lessons and understanding of their issues and consequences independently through a self-reflective process.  And, ultimately, to commit to complying with a jail alternative that will help them move forward in a positive and productive direction.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Young Father Enters the Professional World through UPNEXT

By: Darwin Garcia

Dhavon was a young, unemployed father, with limited access to his daughter when he joined UPNEXT. He wanted assistance in finding a stable job so he could build a bright future for himself and his beloved daughter. Dhavon understood his barriers but was not deterred by them. Instead, he was driven to overcome these hardships. As a result, Dhavon was able to push himself to achieve several milestones and become one of our most accomplished alumni.

On his first day at the program, Dhavon introduced himself to the staff and his peers in a positive, enthusiastic manner. He warmed up to everyone in the classroom about his struggles and desire to better himself. As each day passed, Dhavon soaked up the information offered about fatherhood, seeking employment, and professionalism through our various workshops and activities.

He became computer-savvy through our computer literacy workshop; understood the complexity of fathering through our 24/7 Dad workshops; and became more employable through mock interviewing and resume clinics. Dhavon graduated from the program and was offered a fellowship at Midtown Community Court (MCC), our parent organization. Dhavon’s duties were to manage those mandated to community service in providing custodial services to our office.

Dhavon shined as a fellow for MCC. He matured through his experiences and managed to supervise diverse groups of community service workers. At the same time, he was able to gain visitation rights of his daughter. His relationship with his daughter blossomed as he made progress professionally. He spent weekends bonding with his her, talking to her about all of the success that he was enjoying at UPNEXT. After completing the UPNEXT fellowship, program staff offered him the opportunity to complete another one, which he gladly accepted. The second fellowship provided Dhavon the opportunity to further develop his custodial skills and become a mentor to first time fellows.

The second fellowship ended and Dhavon found himself looking for employment once more. Coincidentally, a full-time position as community service supervisor at MCC arose at the same time. Dhavon applied for the position and used his all of the skills, as well as the strong track record he developed during his fellowships that he had learned at UPNEXT to secure it. Dhavon is now the first UPNEXT alumni to obtain a full-time position at our organization, MCC.

Dhavon has overcome many obstacles to reach this point, and continues to move forward. We at UPNEXT are proud to now call Dhavon a colleague and we will work with him as he progresses in his career.