NYC: Where the Police Offer a Free Art Class Instead of Prosecution

22 October 2019

Since a diversion program, Project Reset, started in Manhattan, district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. says that prosecutions for low-level offenses have halved.

By Rebecca Belan
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In February, Assia, 21, of Queens, was caught trying to steal a shirt from a store on Canal Street in Manhattan—a would-be birthday present for her best friend. By the time she realized she’d been made and tried to put the shirt back, the police had already arrived. She says they cuffed her and slammed her against a wall when she slipped one thin wrist out of the cuff. The encounter was frightening but when Assia was released from booking, the arresting officer gave her a pamphlet to let her know that she might be eligible for Project Reset, an early diversion program that provides individuals arrested on low-level, non-violent misdemeanors an alternative to appearing in court, and a way out of having a criminal record.  

“At first I thought it was a scam, that I was being played by the cop,” Assia told CityLab in a phone interview. “I thought, no, this is too good to be true. I just have to go into a class for three hours and that’s it? It ended up being a blessing in disguise.” Assia’s successful completion of a three-hour class at the Swiss Institute, an art institution in Manhattan, closed out the incident.

Assia’s course was part of Project Reset, a diversion program launched as a pilot for 16- and 17-year-olds in Manhattan in 2015. Now Project Reset offers diversion programs (programs that offer an alternative to the traditional justice system) to people of any age at all precincts in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Assia was lucky that she was arrested in Manhattan. While the city recently approved funding to expand Project Reset to New York’s other two boroughs, Queens and Staten Island, the details have not been finalized.* Even within one city, offering a program that has the potential for systemic long-term effect on lives can be up to the inclinations of the borough district attorney.

If Assia had been arrested in her home borough of Queens, it is likely she would have had to make a court appearance and rely on the judge to either dismiss her case or mete out punishment, which can end in a criminal record and its collateral consequences.

Instead, Assia was offered an art class. The prosecution alternative offered to people who’ve been arrested is also something of a location lottery: Anyone arrested below 96th Street in Manhattan is referred to Young New Yorkers or the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) depending on their age. Both offer arts-oriented programming. All people arrested in Manhattan above 96th Street are referred to the Osborne Association for a group behavioral workshop.

In the Bronx low-level offenders are referred to Bronx Community Solutions, affiliated with CCI. They are offered a chance to participate in a “restorative circle” in which participants and community volunteers talk about the detrimental effects that crime, arrest, and conviction can have on one’s life and opportunities.

In Brooklyn, all arrestees are referred to CCI, which offers them a choice between a class at the Brooklyn Museum or a cognitive behavioral therapy-based group session called Tools for New Thinking. Earlier this month, the Brooklyn district attorney held a press conference to alert people to the inclusion of the Brooklyn Museum as a new site for Project Reset’s diversion programming, setting off complaints about criminals getting a mere slap on the wrist with a paintbrush with one newspaper writing about the Brooklyn DA: “He’s got soft-on-crime policy down to a fine art.”

But Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., who initiated the creation of Project Reset in 2015, says that diversion programs are also a matter of not wasting resources: “If you jump subway turnstiles in Manhattan, you never go to jail,” Vance told CityLab. “You can do it 100 times and no court is ever going to send you to jail. So we spend about $2,200 to process a theft of services arrest for a $2.75 fare. Our justice system falls most heavily on communities of color, and we really need to rethink how we approach these cases, both to get better outcomes, but also to reduce the impact which is very often viewed as targeted and unfair on particular communities.”

Seventy-four percent of prosecuted cases in New York are for misdemeanors, according to a 2017 report from NYC Criminal Justice Agency. Instead of clogging up the courts Project Reset tries to change behaviors and hope that will be more effective in reducing recidivism.

Assia says her session began with a restorative art facilitator teaching her some things about the law that Assia didn’t previously know. Next, a program graduate turned peer mentor talked about her own experience with arrest and Project Reset, and then another facilitator taught Assia how to make a collage out of photos of herself and of animals that could signify different characteristics.

“I put a butterfly between two photos of me, one sad and one happy, to show that I’m transformative,” Assia said. “I learned that I could describe myself in more ways than one. I learned that I’m patient, I’m understanding, I’m a good listener. These are things I now pride myself in that I didn’t realize about myself before. I used to think I’m just a regular kid, there’s nothing much to me. But doing art was like therapy.” She has since returned to Young New Yorkers every month to participate in the organization’s leadership dinner and to act as a peer mentor to other program participants.

The arrest charges eligible for Project Reset are low-level and include petit larceny (such as shoplifting) marijuana possession, and graffiti. If the person arrested for such an offense in the participating boroughs receives a desk appearance ticket, they are eligible for Project Reset. The process usually involves intake with a counselor who assesses the needs of the participant, a class, and then the participant is given a plan for supportive community services as needed according to Saadiq Newton-Boyd, the program manager for Project Reset in Brooklyn. Those who complete the program—and CCI says an internal evaluation of the pilot shows a 98 percent completion rate—don’t have to set foot in a courtroom and the district attorney declines to prosecute their cases.

The Criminal Justice Investment Initiative of the Manhattan district attorney’s office has provided $7.7 million in funding for all of Project Reset’s programming in Manhattan, according to the district attorney’s office. The investment initiative is funded with money seized from financial institutions that commit fraud district attorney Vance said. “So in Manhattan, we have a $250 million budget for the Criminal Justice Investment Initiative across an array of programming." While Manhattan’s Wall Street is a locus of financial seizure, other boroughs don’t have an equivalent pot.

In Brooklyn, Project Reset costs around $4 million and is funded primarily by a mayoral fund with about 20 percent of the costs covered by the City Council, according to the Brooklyn DA’s office. The Bronx program is funded by the City Council, which has pledged $710,000 to fund the continuation of the project in 2020.

Alexis Beckett, 25, of the Bronx, attended a Project Reset session at the Osborne Association in August. About a week after she was arrested in Harlem (Manhattan, above 96th street), the Osborne Association contacted her to schedule her for a four-hour workshop. At first, Beckett thought it was just a get-out-of-jail-free card. “Then once I actually went there, I found it to be useful, and I hope people see it as more than just a way out and instead as an opportunity to learn,” Beckett told CityLab in a phone interview. She learned soft skills like how to think before acting and how to be more empathetic.

“They taught me that it’s okay to give people second chances,” she said. “Everybody makes mistakes. Not everything needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Sometimes people just need someone in their corner. I use these lessons everyday, especially with my son.”

Both Assia and Beckett were relieved to walk away from a mistake without a criminal record. “Because once you get something on your record, you’re just viewed a different way,” said Beckett.

Artists Shaun Leonardo and Derek Fordjour were the first teaching artists to work with Project Reset back in 2017 and the principles they laid out are still at the core of the curricula across the program. “What art can do in this conversation with the justice system is see where a person might be restored,” Leonardo told CityLab. “When someone has an experience, in this case an arrest, that story is running them. Making art is a way of slowing down, seeing what’s at the heart of the story. Because quite often what’s missing in the telling of that story is how that person feels. So it’s a process of humanizing our narratives.”

At the Brooklyn Museum, the class for people over 25 focuses on just one work of art, The Judgement by Bob Thompson. About 15 participants engage in what Monica Marino, Brooklyn Museum’s adult learning manager, calls a “collective interpretive process,” discussing what they think is going on in the painting before and after being given background on the painting or the artist, a black American who died at age 28 in Rome in 1966. “It’s interesting how these discussions relate to their own lives,” said Marino. “In the last class, the participants said the painting could reflect what a courtroom looks like, and who is in the position to judge and be judged.”

After this discussion, they begin to make their own art with oil pastels and inspired by the figures in the painting, Marino says. “Often what happens is it’s this beautiful, magical, silent moment where people are rapt with what they’re doing and you can tell they’re really enjoying it,” said Marino.

The goal of the arts programming is to help participants perceive themselves as something other than criminal. “So many of these individuals, particularly if they’re brown or black, are coming up from a young age with these environmental messages that tell them they are worth less,” said Leonardo. “Often they are already describing themselves as criminal, using language that’s been imposed on them by law enforcement and the media at large. We’re trying to undo some of these messages, otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In 2012, 86,000 low-level misdemeanors and violations were prosecuted by the DA’s office, according to district attorney Vance. In 2018, the number was 45,000, due in large part to early diversion programs like Project Reset. “That’s 40,000 men and women, most of whom are going to be of color, who are not coming into the criminal justice system and being processed as cases have been processed for generations here,” Vance said.

According to a CCI evaluation of its earlier work with 16- and 17-year-olds, participants were significantly less likely to be convicted on a new arrest one year after completing, and they also spent more time without a new conviction.

“In my community, there are a lot of unnecessary arrests,” said Beckett, the graduate of the behavior modification course in the Bronx. “But I think the justice system is at least seeing that everybody doesn’t need a record. We don’t need to keep putting people on probation and throwing people into the juvie system. A lot of the ways people were raised, it’s hard to know who knows right from wrong. It’s about guidance and pointing them in the right direction. The system still needs to be improved, but there’s a step there and that counts.”

*CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article did not make clear that, while Project Reset diversion programs are not yet available in Queens and Staten Island, the funding to expand to those boroughs has been allotted by the city.