Low-Level Offenders in NYC Can Now Take an Art Class Instead of Appearing in Court

“It’s about holding people accountable, but doing it in ways that promote human dignity,” Brooklyn’s district attorney said

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If participants successfully complete the program, the district attorney’s office declines to prosecute their case, and the arrest record is sealed Jonathan Dorado/Brooklyn Museum

In 2009, the number of annual misdemeanor arraignments in New York City peaked at more than 320,000. Although this figure has dropped in years since, the city’s court system remains overburdened, leading officials to explore initiatives aimed at avoiding prosecution for low-level offenders. As Hakim Bishara reports for Hyperallergic, one such alternative offers a unique opportunity to those arrested for minor crimes: Instead of appearing in court and possibly serving jail time, detainees can take an art class at the Brooklyn Museum.

The new program is part of a broader effort known as Project Reset. Launched in 2015, the campaign initially centered on 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in Harlem and the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. Now, City Lab’s Rebecca Bellan writes, Project Reset also offers “diversion programs (programs that offer an alternative to the traditional justice system) to people of any age at all precincts in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.”

Individuals arrested on non-violent misdemeanor charges—like shoplifting, fare evasion and painting graffiti—are eligible to participate in Project Reset if they do not have prior adult criminal arrests. Depending on the borough in which participants live, they may find themselves attending group workshops, individual counseling sessions, “restorative justice circles” or arts programming. If participants successfully complete the program, the district attorney’s office declines to prosecute their case, and the arrest record is sealed.

Brooklyn’s district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, announced the debut of the Brooklyn Museum-Project Reset collaboration earlier this month. Per CBS New York’s Marcia Kramer, the two-hour curriculum requires students to view and discuss a work of art with strangers.

“They’re asked to create their own art, to think and find meaning in that art,” the district attorney said. “It’s about holding people accountable, but doing it in ways that promote human dignity.”

According to Bishara, Project Reset started operating at the Brooklyn Museum as a pilot program this spring. Two courses are available: one for participants between the ages of 18 and 25, the other for individuals over 26. The latter group studies The Judgement, a 1963 work by Bob Thompson—an African-American artist who rendered Old Master themes with Expressionist techniques—while younger participants focus on Shifting the Gaze, a Titus Kaphar painting loosely based on a 17th-century Dutch portrait. (Kaphar whitewashed over most of the figures in the painting, leaving a black boy, likely the family’s servant, as the work’s centerpiece, during a 2017 TED Talk.)

Adjoa Jones de Almeida, director of education at Brooklyn Museum, told reporters the works were deliberately chosen for their “potential to spark dialogue around themes of agency, defining our own narrative versus being defined by others.”

Project Reset’s efforts to engage constructively with low-level offenders outside of the court system are having a positive impact, an internal assessment of the Manhattan program found. The survey reports, for instance, that “on average the number of re-arrests for participants of Project Reset was lower at the six-month follow-up period than for the comparison group [of other defendants].” The average number of re-arrests was also lower at the one year mark, though the differences were not statistically significant. Still, the report notes, “Project Reset participants were less likely to be convicted on a new charge—and had fewer convictions on re-arrests—than those in the comparison group at both six months and one year (1 percent versus 6 percent after six months, and 2 percent versus 8 percent after one year).”

Participants’ cases were also resolved much more quickly: within 71 days, on average, compared to 257 days for those who did not take part in the program. Most of the individuals in the comparison group only had their charges dismissed after a six-month adjournment period during which their case was searchable in criminal background checks. Members of the Project Reset group, by contrast, usually did not appear in court, and their cases were not filed.

“[A] decline to prosecute is arguably a better outcome for the defendant than formal court processing,” the report notes, “even if the court disposition is favorable.”

Shaun Leonardo, one of the first artists to work with Project Reset, tells Bellan that alternative responses to crime are particularly important for people of color disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

“So many of these individuals, particularly if they’re brown or black, are coming up from a young age with these environmental messages that tell them they are worth less,” Leonardo says. “We’re trying to undo some of these messages, otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ninety-eight percent of people who entered into Project Reset programs in Manhattan successfully completed their sessions, and participants have spoken positively about the initiative. “It definitely helped me avoid the anxiety of having to attend an actual court date for a mistake I made,” Jessy Singh, who took part in the Brooklyn Museum course after being arrested for shoplifting, said, according to CBS New York. “It helped to make me feel human in a system that often criminalizes people for lie the smallest of things, bad choices, wrong place wrong time.”

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