One Police Plaza

Love and Pizza in Bronx Criminal Court

March 13, 2017

A different approach to the way NYC tackles low-level offenses is taking root in Bronx Criminal Court — the brainchild of a cop turned judge.

At the Desk Appearance Ticket part of Bronx Criminal Court at 215 E. 161st St., eight teenagers — ages 16 and 17 — sat in the first row on a recent Monday morning. They were first offenders, facing the possibility of a year in jail for minor offenses, such as marijuana possession, trespass and shoplifting. 

The eight teens were participating in a day-long, court-sponsored program known as Desk Appearance Ticket Youth, or DATY. The program begins at the 11 AM morning calendar call, is followed by three hours of participation in an interactive counseling session (with free pizza lunch included) and concludes back in the courtroom later that afternoon at the 4 PM call with a with a certificate of completion and the dismissal of charges.

“You see kids slouching as they sit there in the morning. Some are acting disrespectfully,” said Presiding Judge Margaret Martin, a former Legal Aid attorney who defended kids like these. “When you see them back in court later in the afternoon after going through the program, they act differently. They have had a constructive experience. They no longer see the court as their enemy or adversary. I’m a total cheerleader.”

The program is run by facilitators from Bronx Community Solutions, a partially city-funded nonprofit, and focuses on developing the self-esteem of kids who often come from poor and troubled families.

“In essence this is an interactive exchange between the Bronx Community Solutions providers and the impacted young people,” says the program’s founder, George Grasso, the Supervising Judge of Bronx Criminal Court. “We want the young people to understand that their actions have consequences. It’s not just a lecture. They are encouraged to become participants. We pull this out of them. They are listened to.”

Grasso might seem an unlikely person to head a program that relies on a social-work approach in the criminal court system. He spent 30 years in the NYPD, starting as a cop and rising to deputy commissioner for legal matters and later to first deputy commissioner, in a department where social work has disparaging overtones.

In 2010, he retired from the NYPD and was appointed a judge. “Now,” he says, I have a broader view.”

“What I’ve learned in the past seven years is that criminal court is an underused resource. There is a potential I previously didn’t recognize. How can we help instead of punishing?”

His method has the support of the Bronx Criminal Court establishment — including the District Attorney’s office, the defense bar and the NYPD.

It would be naive to think that a day-long program can change a kid’s life. “This is not a solution,” acknowledges John Watts, who served as a court liaison for the program and is now an investigator for the Department of Corrections. “But it’s a healthy start.” There are no statistics for the 500 or so youngsters who have participated in DATY in the last 18 months, but Watts says that, “from what we see, there is a very low rate of recidivism.”

Watts adds that many of the youngsters in the program were forced into doing things, or that they were ignorant of the law. “They don’t realize that in some housing complexes the law doesn’t allow you to be there if you are not a tenant. A lot of kids are caught on the roof of these complexes smoking marijuana. These minor offenses tend to build up to higher offenses. It can escalate, and end up with a criminal record.”

And that makes it harder to find a job. When they get employment offers, potential employers will conduct background checks, and find past legal offenses.

“Then there are kids with gang affiliations, who are forced to be involved in some sort of retaliation, even if they don’t know that person,” Watts says. “And if they are not complicit, they become the victim.

“And it is all based here in the courthouse, not in police precincts. Some kids don’t want to be seen going into a precinct. They’re afraid of being accused of snitching. Coming into the courtroom changes their perceptions. They know we are there to help them. They leave with a sense that they were heard.”

Some see the DATY program as the opening gambit for using the court system as a kind of early intervention. Watts says that his role is to work with courts and the judges on alternative sentences. Related programs, such as volunteer counseling, mentors for older offenders, anger management courses, community service, and job training are now being considered, says Grasso .

“This is the first time some of these kids have received a certificate for anything.” Grasso says. “We want them to look at Bronx Criminal Court as a safe space. We want them to feel, ‘You matter.’”


Copyright © 2017 Leonard Levitt