2020 Year in Review
Innovation and Resiliency
In 2020, New York City faced challenges unparalleled in modern times. The COVID-19 pandemic devastated communities as the City shut down and people braced for the impact of the global health crisis in every aspect of their lives. The City’s justice system, too, faced unique health and safety challenges during COVID-19. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) sought to address these challenges with innovation and resiliency during those difficult months and continues today. Collaborating with community and justice system partners, MOCJ worked to support the new challenges at hand while never losing sight of the long-term goals: empowering communities to realize safety on their own terms.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) oversees the Office to Prevent Gun Violence (OPGV), the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP), and the Atlas program. Each of these entities prioritize increasing residents’ agency and capacity to strengthen their communities and define public safety for neighborhoods overcoming decades of disinvestment.
OPGV centers its approach on mitigating conflict among communities experiencing increased gun violence. MAP empowers NYCHA residents to address community-wide issues that prolong widespread disinvestment and supports resident-led efforts to build equity and opportunity. At the judicial-level, Atlas, a volunteer pretrial program, aims to ensure that individuals who are released into their communities on their own recognizance return to court for arraignment.
“Our understanding of what drives gun violence comes directly from community members impacted by it. If we’re waiting for people to be in gang leadership positions before we address what compels someone to pick up a gun and use it, then we’ve already lost. That’s why the kind of intervention work the Crisis Management System network does is so critical: gun violence is defeated when we break the cycle that perpetuates it.”
Since 2017, OPGV has been singularly focused on investing in communities most impacted by gun violence. Many of those communities felt additional hardships this year resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and some experienced an increase in shootings during the unprecedented national crisis.
OPGV immediately responded by working with local leaders to address critical neighborhood needs. Thanks to additional investments into the Crisis Management System (CMS) by Mayor Bill de Blasio, community-based partners already committed to reducing gun violence became essential credible messengers in the effort to protect vulnerable New Yorkers from the coronavirus. CMS members hit the streets to promote responsible distancing and distribute free personal protective equipment across the five boroughs.
Additionally, OPGV launched the #StayStrongNYC digital campaign targeting communities disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and gun violence. Deploying visual assets on digital screens and social media in specific neighborhoods, the campaign used images and video sharing experiences of community leaders on the front lines of addressing both public health crises.
“The most effective solutions come from the grassroots and create change beyond the power of government. Cure Violence has empowered leaders from across our city to take control of their neighborhoods and rethink what it means to keep each other safe.”
Listen to Jessica Mofield on The Brian Lehrer Show: The ‘Cure Violence’ Model of Public Safety
Watch the Eyewitness News video: New York City Intervention Programs Seek to Intercept Violence Before it Happens – ABC7 New York
Watch the CBS2 News video: CBS2 Meets Members of Man up! INC., 1 of More Than 20 Groups That Are Out to Cure Violence in NYC
Read the BKReader story: Bed-Stuy Organizer a Face of New Campaign Tackling Gun Violence, COVID-19
Photos by MOCJ staff.
As the nation was struck by both a global health crisis and a growing demand for community-driven public safety policies, MAP brought together residents, city agencies, local organizations, and others to bring vital resources to New Yorkers in need. MAP residents across 15 developments were deeply engaged in the local NeighborhoodStat process to identify and vote on community projects and priorities.
Resident leaders and neighborhood partners were able to quickly use the networks they built to address the immediate needs of vulnerable residents affected by COVID-19. Resident leaders and partners with the Center for Court Innovation, Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, and Los Sures conducted 17,000 individual needs assessments. Using the information gathered, MAP helped deliver more than 7,000 packages of food, personal protective equipment, and cleaning supplies to public housing residents across the five boroughs. MAP also kept communities connected by hosting regular Resiliency Seminars to support resident leadership around rent relief, benefit access, trauma support, violence response, community design and other topics.
In the face of an uncertain summer for youth employment opportunities across the city, MAP worked with both the Office to Prevent Gun Violence and the Young Men’s Initiative to develop a virtual version of OPGV’s Anti-Gun Violence Employment Program. More than 650 teens and young adults from NYCHA developments and neighborhoods received professional development training and a stipend in exchange for working at local organizations within their communities. Another 150 young people were offered stipends for training in public art, dance, media, and music making through MAP’s VIBE program for teens.
For younger New Yorkers impacted by quarantine restrictions, MAP also worked with the Department of Transportation, the Police Athletic League, and Street Lab to bring Play Streets to public housing communities, providing critical access to safe outdoor activities and programming.
“True safety lies in networks of strong community leaders, well resourced local organizations, unmitigated access to opportunity, a legitimate and responsive government, and the realization of justice.”
Photos by MOCJ staff; Center for Court Innovation; Green City Force; and Uptown Grand Central.
Read Renita Francois’ article in Blavity: Why the Government Should Leave it to Local Communities to Define What Public Safety Means to Them
Read the Norwood News story: New York City Adds “Play Streets” to Nation-Leading “Open Streets” Initiative
Operating under ONS, Atlas aims to empower communities to build safety on their own terms by supporting individuals in need. The preexisting networks within MAP and OPGV provide Atlas with a foundation to quickly build upon as it rolls out its own unique efforts of supporting individuals and families that experience the destabilization and challenges of court system involvement.
Atlas proudly announced the selection of United Way of New York (UWNYC) as the prime vendor for the program. United Way’s national record as a leading nonprofit and its long-held, successful commitment to raising up communities in need makes it a natural fit for Atlas’ ambitious goals.
MOCJ and United Way have forged ahead to build the infrastructure Atlas requires to both provide individual services and to grow the local network of providers who will ultimately be on the front lines of providing those services.
“The future of public safety and neighborhood thriving will come through investments and filling resource gaps to support our most vulnerable neighbors. Atlas aims to be a source of stability for and investment in court-involved people, their friends, and their family, as well the frontline community-based organizations that serve them.”
“Atlas is part of UWNYC’s 80+ year commitment to economic mobility and putting a path to peace and self-sufficiency in the hands of every New Yorker.”
Within a year of its creation, the Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes (OPHC) immediately mobilized to support communities experiencing hateful and bigoted attacks, engaged young New Yorkers to promote the city’s diversity and tolerance, and convened city agencies to problem solve how to systematically prevent hate.
At the beginning of the local COVID-19 outbreak, Asian and Pacific Islander communities across the City reported an increase in bias incidents and hate crimes. OPHC quickly spearheaded a strategic action plan for partner agencies to reinforce New York City’s commitment to protecting vulnerable neighbors from hate crimes, resulting in a series of virtual town halls for affected communities, as well as the development and distribution of resources on how to report incidents.
By prioritizing education and community engagement as tools to fight hate, OPHC also helped create opportunities for young New Yorkers to learn more about and join the effort to prevent hate and bigotry. In addition to providing educators with curriculum resources for students, the office launched its inaugural HeARTwork Against Hate art contest in partnership with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City. Offering young artists a creative outlet to both celebrate the city’s diversity and join the fight against hate and bias, winning participants received prize money and had their artwork featured in a citywide digital public awareness campaign.
“OPHC is proud of its first year. We heightened conversations on best practices to address, prevent, and respond to hate violence. We supported vulnerable communities, developed new educational resources, and laid a strong foundation to ensure that New York City is a safe and welcoming place for all.”
Above are the winning submissions from the HeartWork Against Hate competition:
William Fuentes, 17, first place; Paula Kupin, 15, second place; Yisneily Morales, 17, third place.
Read the Daily News story: Bias, Group Hate and the Coronavirus Pandemic
Watch the PBS Newshour Weekend video: Parents Fear Anti-Asian Racism as Schools Mull Reopening
As a multi-agency task force charged with addressing illegal short-term rentals, the Office of Special Enforcement continued to protect the City’s housing stock from individuals and companies that violate the law and put New Yorkers at risk.
OSE litigation resulted in a settlement that permanently prevented Manhattan’s former Imperial Court Hotel from using 227 units of housing as illegal hotel rooms. The office also launched an investigation into Guesty, a platform used by short-term rental hosts to scale up illegal short-term rental operations in New York City. OSE also filed suit and obtained a restraining order that ended an illegal rental operation that spanned nine Brooklyn buildings and generated an estimated $1.4 million over four years for two notorious Brooklyn landlords who were also accused by the City of tenant harassment and unlawful eviction.
Additionally, the office applied its enforcement expertise to the City’s efforts to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The work office played a coordinating and inspection role in the City’s efforts to ensure compliance with executive orders relating to businesses reopening, and it served as the enforcement lead for emergency restrictions on fees charged to restaurants by food delivery service app companies.
“The safety and health of New Yorkers is our paramount concern, especially now more than ever. As the city continues to heal and more residents seek safe, permanent housing, we refuse to turn a blind eye to illegal activity from unscrupulous owners, hosts, or platforms that knowingly endanger tenants.”
Read Wired’s story: NYC’s Crackdown on Illegal Airbnb Empires Has a New Target
Read The Cut’s story: The Eco-Yogi Slumlords Are Getting Sued — Again
Read the Bloomberg article: Airbnb Agrees to Give Host Data to NYC in Settlement (bloomberg.com)
Read the latest on the New York Daily News: NYC fines Manhattan building owner $290M for illegal short-term rentals
The City’s jail population continued its steady downward trend at the start of 2020, thanks in part to bail reform measures restricting its use for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses. Ahead of the COVID-19 healthcare emergency, the City’s jail population was down an additional 4.6 percent since the beginning of 2020.
In the face of COVID-19, the City worked with its partners in the justice system to safely reduce the jail population as much as possible. This led to a nearly 30 percent drop from mid-March to the end of April.
While a number of factors led to a steady rise in the population as the year proceeded, 2020 ended with a year-over-year reduction of nearly 14 percent compared to the end of 2019.
“We are moving forward with our historic plan to close Rikers Island and create a smaller, safer and more humane jail system. This comprehensive plan gets us one step closer to bringing people back to their communities, one step closer to ending the cycle of recidivism and one step closer to ending mass incarceration once and for all.”
With the jail population continuing on its target of no more than 3,300 people by the opening of the new facilities, the NYC Department of Correction (DOC) was able to reduce the number of active facilities in use. In 2020, DOC closed both the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Detention Complexes, as well as the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) on Rikers Island. This brought the total number of shuttered DOC facilities to five.
The additional facility space provided DOC with much-needed flexibility as the department and Correctional Health Services (CHS) worked hard to contain COVID-19 among the population in their care. The OBCC facility was of particular help, since correction and health officials utilized the facility for quarantine purposes over the course of the healthcare emergency.
In addition to implementing social distancing and quarantine measures inside the facilities, as well as conducting COVID-19 tests for everybody upon admissions, CHS and DOC have vaccinated all medically vulnerable individuals and are working to ensure that everyone in the custody of DOC who is eligible for vaccination receives one.
“We remain committed to moving operations into new borough-based facilities that represent the very best in correctional design, and providing the safest, most humane environment possible for those who work and live in our jails.”
The MOCJ Re-entry team works with a network of nonprofit providers across New York City to support people discharged from custody transition back to their communities. These supportive services include re-entry counseling before a person leaves jail, paid transitional employment, housing assistance, job training, mentoring, and wellness support.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Re-entry team began working closely with partners across the criminal justice system to implement a plan for reducing the jail population, while continuing to provide services for people returning from jail and assisting them with unique challenges precipitated by COVID-19.
This year also saw continuation of the Jails to Jobs re-entry program and the process to safely launch Enhanced Re-entry Services under a new request for proposal (RFP) in January of 2021. These services, including enhanced peer mentor presence, increased day of discharge supports. Connections to hyper-local community groups began rolling out on January 1, 2021 and will continue to ramp up through July 1, 2021.
Re-entry providers contracted for this $20 million network of services include Center for Community Alternatives, Center for Court Innovation, Exodus Transitional Community, Fedcap, Fortune Society, Friends of Island Academy, Housing Works, Osborne Association, Urban Youth Alliance, and Women’s Prison Association.
In 2020, the re-entry team also worked to advance advocacy and logistics towards providing all New Yorkers leaving city jails with identification and seamless access to the benefits and services needed to reenter the community safely and smoothly. This is key work that MOCJ will advance through 2022.
“As New York City looks to safely lower its jail population and close Rikers Island, we have to consider where people who are leaving jails will go once they are released and what services they will need to build stable futures. To do this, we have to increase housing capacity by expanding programs like emergency housing, transitional housing, and supportive housing. Without robust re-entry services, we are doomed to repeat the past.”
Photos by Exodus Transitional Community, Inc.
Watch Anna Calabrese and the Exodus Transitional Community in the Vice video: Released From Prison Early Because of COVID-19
Embedded in MOCJ, the Office of Pretrial Justice Initiatives (OPJI) was formed in November 2019 to work with partners across New York City on developing and managing strategies to safely reduce the local jail population. Part of New York City’s success in reducing the population of individuals detained pretrial has come from innovative strategies including the expansion of its nationally recognized Supervised Release program. Findings from an evaluation released in 2020 show that Supervised Release is as effective as cash bail in ensuring people return to court, with fewer unequal outcomes for people in different financial situations. Since its launch in March 2016, Supervised Release has helped divert more than 24,000 individuals from jail.
Ahead of New York State bail reform policies that went into effect January 1, 2020, Supervised Release eliminated all eligibility requirements that previously limited its use. The program’s providers also assisted the City’s efforts to quickly reduce the jail population in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the authority of Article 6A of the New York Correction Law, the Department of Correction instituted a program to release city-sentenced individuals to serve the remainder of their sentence at home. The Commissioner moved quickly and released nearly 300 individuals to the new and intensive “6A program” in mid-March 2020. Supervised Release providers checked in with participants daily and reported compliance to the Department of Correction.
“Before Supervised Release, judges had two options at arraignment: they could set bail, a monetary condition for returning to court, or they could release the defendant on their own recognizance. Since its introduction in 2016, we’ve seen that having this third option of Supervised Release is just as effective as cash bail in ensuring people return to court (with less unequal outcomes for people in different financial situations). While the type of people who are put into Supervised Release is up to the judges at this point, there is a lot we can do within the program to ensure that being in Supervised Release does not lead to deeper entrenchment in the system.”
Learn more: Supervised Release in 2020 January-June
The City’s Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) programs are another key strategy to reducing courts’ reliance on incarceration. ATIs are judge-mandated diversion programs that provide participants with supportive services in their communities instead of a jail or prison sentence.
In 2020, the City expanded its ATI programs with additional multimillion-dollar investments. The expansion followed the City’s engagement with Dr. Faye Taxman, a nationally recognized criminologist at George Mason University. Working with Dr. Taxman, the City identified key support and service opportunities that can lead to improved long-term results for program participants, including a 15% decrease in ATI participants’ recidivism.
The recent expansion to 15 service providers offering a total of 24 programs transformed the ATI model to better address participants’ unique needs:
• Increased program capacity;
• More funding for youth and women-specific programs, including devoting particular resources to communities in Queens and Staten Island;
• Ensuring resources are available for programs to continue serving individuals after completing their court mandate; and
• Providing additional ATI capacity for individuals charged with violent and non-violent felonies
Read the Brooklyn Daily Eagle story: New York City Expands Its Alternative to Incarceration Programs
“New York City is committed to investing in Alternative to Incarceration programs to reduce the jail population and prevent incarceration. ATI programs provide the courts with ways to divert people from a jail or prison sentence and invest in people’s strengths and address their needs by providing trauma-informed support in the community to foster long-term well-being and prevent further criminal justice system involvement.”
The onset of the COVID-19 health emergency and several responsive executive actions by both the New York State and City of New York governing offices significantly limited in-person court operations. MOCJ worked quickly with partners across the justice system to call on the broad resources and expertise of city government to navigate these unanticipated challenges. These efforts included:
• Working with courts and the NYC Department of Correction to increase video conferencing capabilities;
• Consulting experts and facility professionals on retrofitting courts and workspaces to make them COVID-safe;
• Working with NYC health agencies to clarify screening guidelines and processes for reporting and handling
positive COVID cases in local jails
When infection numbers improved in the jails over the summer, the partners worked together to plan the safe resumption of some in-person operations, including multiple grand juries able to deliberate on felony indictments and a handful of criminal jury trials.
Nearly one year into the pandemic, the working groups continue to meet on a weekly basis, serving as a critical touchpoint for updates, problem-solving, and relationship-building at a time when many of the existing touchpoints of everyday criminal law practice remain unavailable. As the City looks to turn the page on this crisis, MOCJ will work with its partners to evaluate lessons learned and identify which changes to existing practice—necessitated by the pandemic—can lead to a more fair, efficient, and equitable criminal legal system for all New Yorkers.