A different approach to how 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 on 161st Street, eight teenagers — ages 16 and 17 — sat in the first row on a recent Monday morning. The teens faced potentially a year in jail for minor offenses, such as marijuana possession, trespass or shoplifting. They were participating in a court program: Desk Appearance Ticket Youth. It begins at the 11 a.m. calendar call, is followed by counseling sessions and ends in the courtroom 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. After going through the program, she said they act differently. “They no longer see the court as their enemy or adversary.”
The program is run by facilitators from Bronx Community Solutions, a nonprofit, and focuses on developing self-esteem. About 500 youngsters have participated in the last 18 months.
“We want the young people to understand that their actions have consequences. It’s not just a lecture,” says the program’s founder, George Grasso, the supervising judge of Bronx Criminal Court. He might seem an unlikely person to head a program that relies on a social-work approach in the criminal courts. He spent 30 years in the NYPD, rising to first deputy commissioner. He retired in 2010, and was later appointed to the bench. “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,” Grasso says. “There is a potential I previously didn’t recognize. How can we help instead of punishing?”
It would be naive to think that a daylong program can change a life. “This is not a solution,” says John Watts, who served as a court liaison for the program and is an investigator for the Department of Correction. “But it’s a healthy start.”
Some see the program as a way to use the court system as a kind of early intervention. “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.’ ”