HOST INTRO: An art exhibition was held last week in the District Courthouse in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t your regular exhibition. The artists were young women accused of assault. By attending an 8-week transformative justice program, they were able to avoid a court process and a possible conviction. Laura Gamba reports.
In a building where judges sentence people to spend days, months or years in prison, eight young women celebrate that they are not part of the criminal system anymore. In a room in the District Courthouse in Brooklyn, the teenagers show the artwork they have been working on for the past 8 weeks. They have just finished the Young New Yorkers program, an art-based justice course that gives teenagers an alternative to going to trial and possibly prison.
Big black and white photographs of the participants and magazine clip collages on large cardboards with words like “brave” and “loving” made by them hang from the ceiling lighting up the – ordinarily gloomy – courtroom.
(SOUND: KATHRYN RODRIGIUEZ describes her collage) (0:06) This one I put feathers because of freedom and the frame is just hiding a little bit of myself cause I don’t like seeing so much of myself.
Katherine Rodriguez is 17 years old. She is graduating from the program today.
RODRIGUEZ 1: My story is, I’m in foster care and I have a foster sister. And one day we got into a little disagreement and an argument and we physically had a physical fight, and we went back and forth with each other and then I left the house and she called the cops on me. Instead of going to Court all the time over something so small, I just picked the program. (0:20)
The program is only for 16 and 17-year-olds charged with minor offenses. It consists of weekly, three-hour, arts-based workshops.
RODRIGUEZ 2: There was a new artist every week, we learned a lot, they gave us an art book to take home. They also gave us a camera and they told us to interview someone who’s important in our lives. (0:12)
But it is not only about creativity. Classes involving citizenship rights and anger management are also taught. It requires daily check-in calls and different homework assignments too.
Barbara Arnwine is the director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Arnwine says transformative justice programs are alternatives to overcrowded prisons.
ARNWINE: It would be a system that would fundamentally look at incarceration as your last resort. (0:08)
After the teenager goes through the program, the case is dismissed and sealed in court. That means that the participants finish the program with a “clean criminal record”.
Cameron Rasmussen is the Program Manager at The Center for Justice at Columbia University. He says people with criminal records encounter many problems making it hard for them to achieve the most essential human necessities.
RASMUSSEN: The question about criminal history comes up in job applications, housing applications and in education. They are 3 of the most basic things that everybody needs. (0:10)
Kathryn Rodriguez believes this is a chance to start from scratch.
RODRIGUEZ3: Well, I just had court today and they closed the case so to me that is a very good thing, and very big because usually I hear “you are messed up and you didn’t do this right and you didn’t do that right” so hearing that made me feel better about myself. (0:12)
And that, she says, is a start.
Laura Gamba, Columbia Radio News.