Sunday, December 8, 2013

Testifying before NYC Council on The Root Causes of Violence


In Support of Prop 1012-A-- Establishing a Commission to to investigate and create recommendations on: 

The Root Causes of Violence

Committee on Economic Development

Honorable Karen Koslowitz, Chair
Members: Mathieu Eugene,  Julissa Ferreras, Letitia James, Diana Reyna, Albert Vann
Brad Lander, Stephen Levin, Donavan Richards, Mark Weprin, Rubin Wills,

December 6, 2013

Presented by

Marlon Peterson
Director of Community Relations
Project Director, iLIVE

The Fortune Society
29-76 Northern Blvd.
LIC, NY 11101
347.510.3611 (direct line)

Good morning. My name is Marlon Peterson and I am the Director of Community Relations at The Fortune Society. Thank you, Chair and members of the City Council Committee on Economic Development, for the opportunity to testify today.

For over forty-five years, The Fortune Society has been a powerful criminal justice advocate and re-entry service provider. We are a longstanding member of the coalition of service providers from across the City and State offering alternatives to incarceration (ATI), reentry, and related programs (including pre-trial services, defender-based advocacy, client specific planning, community service sentencing, drug treatment diversion programs, legal and employment assistance).  These programs divert appropriate individuals who have been arrested or convicted to community supervision and sanctions and connect people who are transitioning from prison or jail into our communities to needed services.   These efforts protect the public and save the city and state revenue by reducing jail and prison costs, preventing recidivism and stabilizing these individuals and their families.  At the Fortune Society, for instance, every dollar invested in ATI programs yields three dollars in jail and prison displacement savings to the City and State, while providing individuals an environment that fosters change, allows clients to stabilize themselves, develop legitimate income streams, build a track record of “clean time” without drug use, and access needed services.  

Most recently, The Fortune Society, through its David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy, created the initiative, iLIVE. Inspired by a quote by writer and activist, Darnell Moore, “LIVING is the most radical act that I can commit myself to,” 
iLive aims to reach individuals from neighborhoods throughout the city,  who have been affected by gun violence and help them get professional licensed mental health treatment.  As part of this effort, we are developing a campaign to address the stigma that impedes many people from receiving needed care and support. iLive will also host a variety of groups and events throughout the City and at Fortune in collaboration with community based partners such as Harlem SNUG, Man Up!, Inc., Life Camp, SOS South Bronx, Legal Aid Society, and others working to end gun violence.

When I read the term “root causes” of violence in Prop 1012, I immediately though about nature and the fact that there are trees taller than football fields and that these trees are nourished from its root below the surface of the ground. Elaborating on that example, to substantively address the problem of violence it is imperative that we investigate and address the underlying causes…the smaller problems and systemic deficits that result in the huge illustration of violent acts New Yorkers experience everyday.  School violence, subway violence, street violence, institutional violence, and other forms of violence are all evident displays of poverty, over-incarceration, insensitive policing, community alienation, archaic social services procedures, unfair immigration policies, under-funded and under-cared for schools, inadequate housing policies, and the lack of culturally competent measures to acknowledge and de-stigmatize behavioral health. The violence we see…that cripple our feelings of safety are a sequelae of these and other social ills. We must move beyond the common thought that our young people are the sole problem, but, that, the institutions they must interact with also shoulder the burden of being labeled the problem.

Understandably , recent media attention to young people wantonly punching passerbys evokes vitriolic feelings in most people. “These kids need to rot in jail!” That, I am sure is a reaction of many. Yet, how much thought is being given to what circumstances are leading young people to partake in such very random acts of violence?  According to US Attorney Eric Holder, “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.” He goes on to say,  “A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities; however, many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it.” For example, in FY12 there were 84,754 new admissions to Rikers Island. In fact, there are about 12,800 people on Rikers Island right now, and only 10% are participating in any form of skills-building activities.  Of the total population, 34% have a mental health diagnosis, and those are only the known mental health diagnoses. This is an increase of 5% from 2010. According to a Yale study by Andrew Papachristos & Christopher Wildeman, “Geographic exposure to neighborhood violence is associated with a range of negative outcomes such as PTSD, depression, and decreased cognitive functioning” (Network Exposure and Homicide Victimization in an African American Community, 2013). These issues are usually left unaddressed. This week alone, a young girl in Harlem was kidnapped by her uncle who reportedly had mental health issues. We do not feel enough is being done to support our young people who are simply surviving in communities as marginalized persons with an array of trauma, i.e., incarcerated and deported family members, mistreatment in schools, stop and frisked more times than they been said “hello” to by an officer, underfunded extra-curricula activities, less opportunity to enjoy their communities because of ill-thought bi-products of gentrification, and so on.

While the City Council should be commended in its creation and implementation of the Anti-Gun Violence Task Force, it is time to move one step further by passing Prop. 1012. Yes, long gone are the days when we had over 2,000 murders in NYC when we could dismiss the crime problem as a bi-product of the lucrative underground drug economy. Paradoxically, today,  we are on pace to reach historical lows in homicides, yet we see a 2.4% increase in felony assaults, according to the 11/18/2013-11/24/20013 Citywide CompStat report. These assaults have long lasting traumatic effects on the victims, witnesses. While some may see this as the calm before the storm, I wish to frame this as the opportunity to do some substantive work around core causes of gun violence and other forms of community violence, and steps towards real solutions without the constant feel of panic, which only allows us to provide band-aids.

Now is the time to start addressing the systems that foster, and in some cases exacerbate community violence. Undocumented immigrants, for example. In sections of the city like Flatbush, where crime violent crime is increasing, policies like Secured Communities (S-Comm) which gives the NYPD Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) powers, that can place arrested, but, not yet convicted folks into deportation proceedings, increases alienation and fear of law enforcement within our immigrant community. A son of naturalized citizens from Trinidad, , my father was undocumented for almost 20 years, and would avoid interacting with the police at all costs; not because he was committing crimes, but because he feared any interaction with police could somehow begin a process of him being taken away from his wife and three children.  Immigrant distrust to of local law enforcement encourages forms of street justice that result in intra-community violence.  While not excusing the violence committed, we must begin the hard work of shifting our overwhelmingly punitive approach to addressing community violence.

Lastly, I encourage that this commission consists of persons impacted by violence on both sides of the victim spectrum—the person harmed and the person that did the harm. Inviting impacted persons to this commission invokes authenticity to the cultural competence necessary to produce qualitative recommendations to the root causes of violence. Impacted includes both victims and perpetrators (both victims) from a trauma-informed perspective.  There is precedent for this in the Fortune Society, where approximately half our of staff at all levels of the agency and one-third of our board of directors were justice involved.  These persons, including myself,  have excellent credentials and their knowledge having lived through similar experiences “[serves] as a resource rather than a liability, according to Criminologist Herbert Sigurdson (1969) (Employing Your Mission—Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies).

The points I have raised today are complex, maybe even overwhelming. Nevertheless, the focused concentration of a group of personally invested people is needed to begin this arduous task of addressing violence with new eyes. New York is known for its innovation in the business and financial sector. We should expect nothing less from our criminal and social justice contingent.
The Fortune Society would like to express its full support for Prop 1012.  As we have done in the past, we would like to extend our expertise to the City Council in its examination and development of a plan to address the root causes of violence.

Thank you, once again, for this opportunity.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bill O’Reilly, Ray Kelly, and Frederick Douglas got me to wondering.

Bill O’Reilly, Ray Kelly, and Frederick Douglas got me to wondering.

“There is a reason why more young black men are in prison. There is a reason why police are more cautious while approaching a Black man in a car. And the reason is overwhelmingly violent crime in this country is generated by young Black men.  Am I wrong?”
                                                                                            -Bill O’Reilly, FOX News

"Last year 97percent of all shooting victims were Black or Hispanic and reside in low-income neighborhoods. Public housing where five percent of the city's population resides experiences 20 percent of the shootings. There were more stops with suspicious activity in neighborhoods with higher crime because that's where the crime is."
                                                                                          -Raymond Kelly, NYC Police  Commissioner

“A person who had passed fifteen years [old] in Alabama said to me recently, ‘Why, everybody knows! Colored people are sent to the convict camps for almost nothing. A parcel of little boys may be playing crap [and] they are seized by the police and sent to the convict camp for life’.

Is it with wonder that a feeling of unrest pervades a people subjected to such inhuman treatment?’”
                                                                                             -Frederick Douglas, page 36

            The statistics articulating the large number of Blacks with criminal justice involvement are staggering.  According to the Cradle to Prison Campaign of the Children’s Defense Fund, nationally, 1 in 3 Black boys born in 2001 are at risk for imprisonment during their lifetime.  In even simpler terms, if you have three black boys  born in the same household, likely one of them will go to jail or prison at some point during their lives.  And if you side with the reasoning of O’Reilly  you will conclude that they their blackness alone is enough reason to substantiate the inevitable destiny of at least one of those Black boys.  You will also agree with Kelly’s assertion that stop-question-and frisks occur more in high crime neighborhoods, where Blacks happen to live because, of course,  Blacks’ natural inclination is to move to neighborhoods where crime is at its highest. Yes, Blacks move to high crime neighborhoods because it’s a redefinition of gentrification. Blacks appreciate high crime areas more so than Whites…right? Further, the reason for the high crime and high likelihood of imprisonment has nothing to do with anything form the past. In fact, just like Jews, Blacks should just get past the past injustices and atrocities, and inhumanities, and tortures, and pillaging, and genocides, and enslavements, and systemic discriminations. The American dream is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, if  you never had boots, or straps in the first place. The ghettoes that Jews were forced into 65+ years ago had nothing to do with racism and injustice, but everything to do with a group of people not wanting to better their own lots in life. Thus, any trauma they experienced during those years in concentration camps should be a thing of the past, especially generations after those atrocities occurred. Jewish people today have no reason to still chant “never forget.”

Blacks have it much easier than the Jews. The kidnapping of about 12 million Africans during the transatlantic slave trade for over 400 years was so long ago. Blacks have had emancipation, voting rights, the end of segregation, and now a Black president. All of those accomplishments give them every opportunity that any other person living in the US has. The fact that many Blacks were subjected to convict lease gangs for crimes like vagrancy and larceny has no impact on their being incarcerated at such high rates today.  It was their fault that they did not have jobs and places to live after generations of slavery. Further, just because convict lease gangs appeared right after the Civil War when slavery ended, and over 80% of those in these convict lease gangs were Black, and that Blacks also typically received sentences of 10 years or more, much more than Whites were usually given, has no bearing on today’s disproportionate representation of Blacks incarcerated.  None whatsoever!
Blacks, we need to ignore the research by the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) regarding plea and charge bargaining, that references that Blacks are “less likely to receive a reduced charge compared with Whites.  We need to get past the policies of just 40 years ago, that is, the FBI and its COINTELPRO policies that insidiously destroyed any cultural upliftment initiatives of poor Black people with the intentional and widespread distribution of drugs.
To echo, O’Reily, “there is a reason why more young Black men are in prison.” O’Reilly is correct to that point. However, his reasoning stops short of really addressing the problem of Blacks in prison and as homicide victims. He diagnoses the problem without deeply considering the traumatic impact of American history on Black people, and other peoples of color. When a young Black man  in the mid-to-late 1800’s can tell Frederick Douglas that,  “Why, everybody knows! Colored people are sent to the convict camps for almost nothing,” we should consider the effects of that reality on future generations. What do we think that 15-year old boy told his children and grandchildren about being Black in America? What do we think that 15-year old boy told his children and grandchildren about the criminal justice system in America? What do we think  that the survivors of lynchings, beatings, and rape told their offspring about life in America? What do we think the survivors and witnesses to the infiltration of drugs in the ghettoes of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles told their children about being Black in America? And when I say “told” I ask you to think about the  non-verbal communications that were transmitted.  The feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, low and vacant self-esteem,  and the devaluated feelings and thoughts about Black life.  Would we think descendants of the atrocities of the centuries of Jewish persecutions to simple “forget” about what happened to their fore parents? Why, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution are declarations to not replicate the tyranny of the British Empire. The founding father vowed never to forget the pangs of British rule by creating Union. Thus, why and how can we expect that Black people and other peoples of color in this country should easily “forget” and “get over” and simply “move beyond” the atrocities that many of them see not only in times of the past, but everyday?

The criminal justice system in America is one of the starkest remaining examples of the oppression of Black people in the United States. We disproportionately overpopulate prisons, and parole and probation caseloads not only because of the offense committed, but also because of the instant and historically consistent offenses committed towards us. So, O’Reilly and Kelly, yes, if you are coming from the lenses explained here in this essay, then, yes, “there is a reason why more young black men are in prison. There is a reason why police are more cautious while approaching a Black man in a car.”