Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Midtown Community Court, Lunch, and a Little Vision that Could

By Dipal Shah

One of my most memorable moments as director of Midtown Community Court came during my first week on the job when I was asked to lunch by a long-time staff member just days into the role. Food options, by the way, abound when you’re stationed in Hell’s Kitchen. And although I’m a deep dish favoring Chicago native, we opted for a pizza place just a few blocks from the court.

As we munched on a slice of pepperoni, she asked me what I realize now was an immensely important and formative question. “In one sentence, what is your vision for the court?” She wore an immense smirk, and I presume she’d picked up on my propensity to be a bit long-winded – I’ve learned that Midtown Community Court boasts a pretty intuitive staff.

I thought for a moment, and smirked back, as I was quite sure I’d satisfied her brevity test. “I want Midtown Community Court to unequivocally change New Yorkers’ lives for the better.”

Although brief, I knew my answer was loaded with potential but, admittedly, challenged by societal constructs and the state of current events. To provide some context, Midtown Community Court sees close to 30,000 New Yorkers walk through its doors every year with most charged with low-level offenses. Too many of these defendants are entrenched in a ruthless cycle of jail and recidivism. And because of their perceived interactions within the justice system, often far too regular, a negative and skeptical opinion of that system permeates. With the events in Ferguson and Baltimore coloring the backdrop of their experience, defendants have diminished confidence in the system’s ability to provide them with fair justice. Moreover, the concomitant impact of recidivism on the day-to-day life and safety for Manhattan residents can’t be overstated. These factors together create a powder keg for antipathy, frustration, hopelessness and immobility.

Midtown Community Court Director, Dipal Shah, before the New York City Council.

With a year behind me, Midtown Community Court undoubtedly has, as it always has, responded to these obstacles and embraced the simple vision I articulated over lunch last year. We endeavor to upend the status quo and change opinions of justice, with Midtown Community Court often the first positive and enriching justice interaction for those involved in the system. More importantly, using a model that is meant to halt the vicious cycle of recidivism and mass incarceration, we hope to provide services to defendants that will allow them to change the course of their lives. And, by meeting these goals, we strive to keep surrounding communities safe. At first blush, daunting, but the staff – intuition aside, infinitely talented – manage it all with aplomb.

Midtown Community Court engages in many spacesrestoring communities impacted by crime, creating effective intervention strategies for justice-involved youth, responding to the needs of those whose lives have been destroyed by human trafficking, cultivating employment prospects for those with criminal records, assisting fathers in reengagement with their families, lifting up those that have been victims of domestic violence, and developing nuanced and humane interventions for those arrested for drug use and possession. We have embarked on many new initiatives as well – crafting novel methods of bridging dialogue between the community, defendants, and the police, engaging those homeless veterans who deserve more, harnessing technology to expand services to youth charged with higher level offenses, creating new channels for fairness and transparency in the court process, and providing innovative access to services in the arena of health, civil legal aid, and financial empowerment. All in an effort to enhance the lived experience of defendants and community residents alike.

This past July, roughly a year since our last lunch, that same staff member and I ventured out to grab another bite. We avoided pizza this time and instead landed at a spicy local Thai joint. In case there was a question, I did enjoy that pizza last year – although I’m still partial to deep dish – but I’ve learned New York Thai is pretty fantastic.

During lunch she asked me if my vision had changed a year later. As I sopped up some lemongrass soup, I provided a response which was, as it was a year ago, quite simple. It would only change if the needs had changed. And that this was a long road and the needs were deep.

Admittedly, the response was likely a bit more long-winded.

*Restaurant recommendations can be provided on request