Posted on 22 December 2009 by Katherine Olson
It is nearly freezing out, but Robert Johnson and Bill Adelman are sweeping Times Square clean one block at a time. They’re here as part of punishment handed down by the Midtown Community Court, and aside from their electric-blue court-issued vests, the two have little in common.
“I shoplifted, I tried to take 11 pairs of jeans,” baby-faced Johnson pauses, reconsiders. He’s young, good-natured and swaggering. “Twelve, no, 13 pairs of jeans, out a store.” Rather than serve jail time, “I can clean this up instead. I’m doing this on the outside; I ain’t doing this on the inside. I can walk clean, look at the girls goin’ past, talk to the sound wave [reporter’s recorder], feel the fresh breeze. I be cleaning up, as well.” Johnson steps around a pile of horse manure. “Look, watch the doo-doo! You guys wanna pick that up?”
Adelman doesn’t hear him; he’s across the street sweeping alongside other vest-clad workers. Surrounded by a throng of camera-toting tourists, he scuttles cigarette butts into a bin. The middle-aged divorcee violated an order of protection, entered his former home while his ex-wife was there. She called the cops. “I had a chance to leave, but I refused to leave,” he says. “Do I prefer this to being in jail? Of course, I mean, that’s a no-brainer, right?” As to the attention-drawing vests and hovering court supervisor, he smiles and says, unconvincingly, “I’m not easily humiliated.”
Humiliation is part of the punishment. Adelman and Johnson are part of the court’s restitution crew, which puts low-level offenders to work cleaning streets and painting over graffiti in midtown. From public urination to disorderly conduct and open-container violations, the crimes are minor but offensive; the sentences brief but befittingly public.
Today, the streets the crew sweeps are walkable, its avenues bulging with tourists, its towering glassy condos fetching some of Manhattan’s higher rents. But midtown looked very different for the majority of its history; in the early 1990s, some might even say it looked like hell. Back then, trash piled up on the corners, hookers combed the streets for johns. Squeegees cleaned windshields with dirty rags and filthy water while cars were held up at stoplights, forcing drivers to pay for the unwanted service—bills only, or risk having their insufficient spare change thrown right back through the window.
Jeff Hobbs remembers the old neighborhood. As deputy project director at the Midtown Community Court, he “like[s] to think the court has played a role” in its transformation. The first community court in the U.S., Midtown was founded in 1993 in response to these quality-of-life crimes, as a trial in community justice. No longer experimental but established, today it hears misdemeanor and summons cases and issues community-service sentences as an alternative to prison time.
“Small problems can erode the quality of life,” Hobbs says, “and make it miserable for families” to live here. Worse, crime “creates a domino effect”: one minor incident leading to a larger one until the entire community is ravaged by offenses small- and big-time alike. The bright blue vests offenders wear as they pull weeds, paint sawhorses and scrub public furniture make justice visible, and hammer home Midtown’s simple, tough-love philosophy: Pay back the community.
In Times Square, restitution crew supervisor John Pettiford eyes the sweepers. A stocky 23-year-old from Brooklyn, he uses his size to daunt the defendants, and his people skills—a medical-school hopeful, he speaks Spanish, Portuguese, a little Arabic and some Swedish—to connect with them. He says the program is “a mutualistic [sic] thing… it’s not about how laborious the work is. You’re not only rehabilitating your community but yourself as well.”
Pettiford’s crew is constantly rotating—the average sentence consists of two six-hour days—and is usually comprised of first-time offenders who are stable enough to be trusted in public, drug-free enough to respond to his humor and watchful eye. They are “the least of all evils… These are generally good people; they’re out here, trying to fix a mistake. It’s a humbling experience to be outside in Times Square, helping out the community that you disturbed.”
But the regulars who file through the court’s metal detectors are often plagued by greater demons, and require greater support. Prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless people who commit low-level violations within the court’s jurisdiction—from 14th Street to 86th Street, between the Hudson River and Central Park—find themselves here. The court offers a range of programs to address underlying problems: a parenting class for incarcerated fathers, a job-placement program, GED classes and volunteer work. Treatment includes drug rehab, sex-worker therapy and health education and a homelessness partnership.
Director Hobbs walks through a typical scenario. Take a drug addict, a familiar figure in this courtroom. The team “doesn’t want to send him back out there to commit a crime and get drugs. Send him to a clinic and get help. Send him back downstairs to the court and get resentenced. Because sometimes people are afraid to admit in the courtroom, ‘The reason why I’m stealing is because I got this big drug habit’.” When the court’s counselors meet one-on-one with the defendant “and he says, ‘To be perfectly honest, the reason why I did this was XYZ,’ we can say ‘Hey, guy, it’s not going to help you by cleaning the streets. What you need is some type of intervention. You need a drug-treatment program, and maybe we can help you.”
Judge Richard Weinberg, a tank of a man with a mass of thick graying hair and a boyish grin, presides. Warm and low-lit, his courtroom is filled with defendants awaiting arraignment, police officers dotting the exits, guns swinging idly at their hips. This particular afternoon, a scruffy homeless man, murky eyes filled with cataracts, shuffles towards the stand. He has been arrested for trespassing and is here for his arraignment.
The counsel and Midtown’s resources coordinator—a position nonexistent in traditional courts but necessary here, she recommends in-house programs based on defendants’ problems—approach the bench and whisperingly inform the judge that the defendant is nearly blind. The judge has already consulted the man’s criminal history and background, as he does for every defendant, from a printout.
Across the bench, the defendant leans on the stand, a court-appointed attorney at his side. After reviewing the case, Judge Weinberg hands down the decision: one day of community service and a strong recommendation for the Court’s homeless-outreach program. Almost tangentially, he says that if the defendant fails to serve his sentence, he will face fifteen days in jail. The goal is, Weinberg says, “to get [defendants] some help.”
Still, as Hobbs says, Weinberg is “a law-and-order judge” who is not afraid to issue jail time, especially for repeat or violent offenders. During that afternoon’s arraignments, a defendant on parole for another crime approaches the stand. Weinberg reviews his history—he had previously been arrested for robbery and kidnapping—sets bail and issues him a court date downtown. Weinberg turns, out of everyone’s earshot, and recalls the words of his mentor, a conservative, Republican judge: “It’s nice to be nice, but who pays the price?”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In the Court’s early days, sentences included work at We Can Recycle, a neighborhood program that offered cash in exchange for bottles and cans. Drug addicts and dealers soon realized that, as Hobbs says, “There was cash to be made,” and users began collecting cans to be redeemed for drug money while dealers waited nearby. Prostitutes followed the money, in search of clients. We Can Recycle in effect created an “insane asylum,” Hobbs says, and the Court stopped including it in sentencings.
Today, the court works with other environmentally-friendly organizations to both punish defendants and help them find jobs: NYC Community Cleanup, a citywide organization that, with the Department of Sanitation, puts 15 defendants to work daily cleaning abandoned lots, littered public spaces and buildings. Times Square Alliance, a business improvement organization, hires former defendants at minimum wage to clean streets and answer tourists’ questions. And Action Carting, a “green” waste-management plant, this year alone hired ten recycling workers from the court’s programs to sort paper, plastic and glass for processing.
Midtown operates differently from the NYC Criminal Court downtown, where the average arrest-to-arraignment time is 30 hours. Midtown’s turnaround time averages 17 hours, and defendants usually begin sentences on the same day as arraignment. Defendants downtown often are sentenced to “time served,” meaning that their time in jail awaiting arraignment is the extent of their punishment. Additionally, traditional courts don’t have the resources, specialists and internal programs at their disposal that Midtown has.
An integral part of the court’s mission is its relationship with the neighborhood’s resident watchdogs. Victoria Watkins is one of the most rabid. She trolls the neighborhood and offers street-by-street recommendations for restitution projects. “There is civic pride in putting a fresh coat of paint on a rusty, graffiti-covered fire hydrant. Public safety is improved… the environment looks cleaner and safer,” she says in an email. Watkins’ suggestions have resulted in the crews painting over 30 mailboxes and 25 fire hydrants. “Graffiti cleanup is dirty work and an activity most citizens would not do unless mandated. Would you want to paint a gritty mailbox in hot, humid weather while pedestrians and cars pass by?”
Back in Times Square, Adelman and Johnson might argue that cleaning the streets, one by one, in the cold is just as punitive as painting in New York’s oppressive summer heat. But both of the men finish their assignment, return their supplies and remove their vests, and, eventually, head home. It is unlikely that they’ll meet again outside of this little, now swept-clean, patch of Times Square.
Despite Midtown Community Court’s many missions—arbitration, environmentalism, counseling—regardless of the defendant, regardless of the crime, the court’s staff insists community justice boils down to just one essential. “It’s all about engagement. The big word, the flavor of the month, the crème de la crème, is ‘engagement,’” says director Hobbs. “Because you have to meet people where they are.”