How New York City Helps Probationers Succeed

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By 8 a.m., a long line formed at the South Bronx probation office, as people arrived with metal shopping carts ready to receive canned vegetables, Thanksgiving turkeys, cat food and boxed mac-and-cheese. It was the first indication that this is not the usual form of probation, where a visit typically means a brusque security screening and a brief encounter with a probation officer, under the constant fear of incarceration, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. New York City’s Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) has seven neighborhood probation offices in places with high rates of supervision. In addition to drug testing and court-ordered reporting, the offices offer probationers free photography classes and GED courses, sewing circles and anti-violence initiatives, food giveaways and a clothing closet.

They present a new vision for what a probation office can mean to a neighborhood, said probation commissioner Ana Bermudez. It represents a fundamental shift from a compliance-driven mentality to one focused on supporting people and re-integrating them into society. It seems to work: In New York City, 80 percent of people on probation complete it successfully. In Philadelphia, just 49 percent do. The shift began a decade ago, when Vincent Schiraldi ran the probation department. He now advocates for probation reform at Columbia University’s Justice Lab. In New York, he articulated a new philosophy he boiled down to: “Do more good. Do no harm. Do it in the community.” The first step was a makeover for  probation offices’ bleak institutional waiting rooms, framed by thick Plexiglas barriers and tacked-up signs blaring rules and blunt warnings. They became “cafés” with colorful murals, movable stages for performances, and tables and chairs not bolted to the floor. “We’re trying to dispel some of the historical trauma that has been in place between probation, law enforcement, and the community,” says assistant commissioner Tim Salyer.

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