Harlem’s Administrative Parole Reentry Court

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court, sits in one of the oldest court buildings in Manhattan, though it is by no means a traditional court.  The renovated courthouse is home to the “Harlem Community Justice Center”,   a multi-jurisdictional community court project, as well as the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. The Reentry Court is presided over by Parole Administrative Law Judge Grace Bernstein, and staffed by co-located parole officers , as well as Justice Center case managers.

Prospective parolees are pre-identified while awaiting release from custody at one of two pre-release reentry facilities in New York City. The majority of parolees in the program are residents of Harlem, a historic but high poverty community. Recent research conducted by the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, also a project of the Justice Center, found that half of all parolees released to Manhattan returned to Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, even though the area is home to just 36% of the county’s population.  Participants are assigned to the Reentry Court for frequent (often weekly) court hearings, and are immediately engaged in treatment, rehabilitation, and job related services. The Reentry Court team consists primarily of the judge, two parole officer, three case managers, and service providers. The Court is a non-adversarial forum so counsel is not present. The program provides an extraordinary courtroom session, where the Judge, parolee and staff  “drill down” on each case to learn what is going right, discuss challenges and where more support or services might be needed. The Court uses sanctions and incentives to help motivate participants, and has a wide variety of programs and services available within the building and community to increase opportunities for success. The program typically runs the first six months of parole, culminating in a graduation ceremony (recent keynote speakers included the legendary Harry Belafonte and recently elected Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.). Successful completers have their cases transferred to a regular parole office but may continue to engage services at the Justice Center. Those who are terminated from the Reentry Court program, appear off site, at an adversarial “parole revocation hearing”, represented by counsel.

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court has been successful at reducing new convictions for parolees, as a recently released evaluation by the Center for Court Innovation shows. However, the news is mixed. The evaluation also points out that Reentry Court participants received more technical violations (typically failures to follow the directions of judge and parole officer; to drug test, attend programs, or maintain contacts) than the comparison group. Along with a number of other exemplary programs, Harlem’s Reentry Court’s smaller caseloads and improved collaboration and communication between parole staff and treatment staff make it harder for parolees’ mistakes to go unnoticed. As Court Administrator Chris Watler explained to me, the Harlem Reentry Court is much better than regular parole at catching the parolee in program violations that can lead to “parole revocations”. To address the problem, the Reentry Court is using a recently awarded Second Chance Act grant to develop an evidence-based risk assessment tool (COMPAS) and graduated response protocol.

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