A simple project wants to give folks a second chance

A nonviolent misdemeanor conviction could give someone a criminal record with far-reaching consequences. Project Reset wants to change that.
A nonviolent misdemeanor conviction could give someone a criminal record with far-reaching consequences. Project Reset wants to change that. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Kena Betancur

Evelyn has a hard time talking about the moment she took the eyelashes from Sephora.

She had gone to Times Square with a friend after school, rode the train from the Bronx for something to do. She likes to go to Times Square for all the things you can’t buy at the Bay Plaza mall. There is the runway at the Times Square H&M, where you can try on clothes and pretend to be a model. Later, she likes to go to Buffalo Wild Wings for a double cheeseburger with bacon.

One afternoon in December the 17-year-old high school senior shoplifted eyelashes. Evelyn, who asked that her middle name be used so as not to blunt school and career opportunities, said she’d never done that before. Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe it “just happened.” As she left the store, a man grabbed her from behind. “I felt like I was dreaming,” Evelyn says.

Soon police officers arrived. She says cops often frighten her. They told her to calm down. She was terrified of the consequences of her one slipup: beyond concern over the pending court appearance, she had a college interview the next day. Would the interviewer know? She was confused. In the cell at the precinct there was another woman who had stolen from Old Navy and had been in the cell before. “I don’t belong there,” Evelyn remembers thinking. Then someone at the precinct told her about Project Reset.

Project Reset targets people who commit nonviolent misdemeanors where desk appearance tickets might have been issued. Participants attend a few hours of class sessions, familiarizing themselves with the criminal justice system and doing various exercises to discourage future lawbreaking. Then the district attorney declines to prosecute the case, and a court record is not generated.

To be eligible, the offense has to be the individual’s first arrest (people are also eligible if past arrests have been sealed). The most common offenses have been for shoplifting, marijuana possession or trespass.

The program, a collaboration among the NYPD, district attorneys and the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership, began in March 2015 for 16- and 17-year-olds. The program has expanded quickest in Manhattan, where every precinct will participate in the coming months, with all age groups eligible. There are pilots in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Evelyn was happy to participate. The first of two sessions took place in Midtown in January with a handful of other people. The group members discussed what actions might attract police attention — such as hopping a turnstile or smoking marijuana. At a second session in Harlem a week or two later, the group acted out different scenarios and talked about ways to stay out of trouble. Not long after, Evelyn got a letter saying her case had been sealed. Effectively, the arrest didn’t happen.

Diversion programs like this are being tested around the city and across the country. Some occur after the court process begins, diverting individuals from crowded jail systems. Others, like Project Reset, keep participants out of the court system altogether, thus “reducing the risks of deportation, loss of housing, and loss of employment that accompany a criminal prosecution,” said Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. in a statement. “We are committed to safely reducing crime and incarceration at the same time.”

According to Vance’s office, 931 16- and 17-year-olds were enrolled in the program since March 2015. Of that group, 22 were re-arrested before the program ended and lost Project Reset’s benefits. That amounts to a 98 percent completion rate (not counting pending cases).

Long-term studies looking at future arrest rates for Project Reset participants have not yet been released. But a study conducted by the Center for Court Innovation and groups like the Rand Corporation looked at similar programs around the country and found some reductions in re-arrest at two years from program enrollment.

Indisputably, for those like Evelyn, the program provides a fresh start.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” she says. She’s participating in a Wednesday event highlighting the program’s successes along with the Center for Court Innovation and the district attorney’s office. And she ended up getting through the college admissions process fine. She’s looking forward to starting college later this summer, planning to study biochemistry.