Ray Figueroa has lived in Harlem for most of his adult life, but he says the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx is "where his life is."
Figueroa works for a grassroots nonprofit called Community Connections for Youth (CCFY), running an urban garden in Brook Park. It's one of the organization's so-called diversion programs for youth involved in the corrections system, providing "productive activities for young people to engage in, in order to avoid criminal activity.
On a recent Saturday in the park, Figueroa commented that many of the community's young residents around Brook Park "have been touched by the criminal justice system in at some point in their lives."
"The CCFY initiative here ... was responsible for really bringing this vision to bear, of-- let's look at community based resources that can help address this issue [of youth incarceration] and provide community-based alternatives to incarceration of young people," said Figueroa.
Juvenile justice reform and diverting youth from incarceration has gained momentum among the state's policymakers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently launched a campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility in the state - from 16 to 18 - while also stressing the importance of community programs to complement this kind of legislative reform.
"Over the course of three years, in excess of 100 youth that were involved in the program were successfully redirected firm being incarcerated," said Figueroa, referencing a three-year pilot program implemented by CCFY and certified by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The program found participants were significantly less likely to be rearrested, and the youth they served remained involved in community support networks beyond the duration of their court mandates.
"Working in the garden - it was the best thing in my life," said 18-year-old Mott Haven resident Junior Leiva, who has known Figueroa for almost three years. "Ray's like a big brother to me."
Leiva was arrested last year and spent a few nights in jail in Brooklyn.
"I was with my friends, hanging out, and one of them had a gun. ... We was playing on the roof of a building, so they charged us with trespassing too," he said.
"I remember Ray came into court and gave the judge a letter. I don't know what the letter said, but they let me go," he said, smiling sheepishly. Leiva is in his final year of high school and says he would like to go to the University of California, Berkeley.
Groups like CCFY work with the Department of Probation in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates. Mott Haven has many so-called "million dollar blocks" - blocks full of people who end up in the criminal justice system, costing the state millions.
'We are responsible for supervising and monitoring young people in the community," said Bronx Juvenile Borough Director Stacye Spear. "And I think that's an important service and role we play, because we want the children to stay in the community."
"Probation has taken a different approach, basically," said William Coachman, who has been a probation officer for more than 25 years. He currently works out of the Probation Department's South Bronx NeOn building, across the street from Bronx Family Court.
The South Bronx NeOn building offers classes for children, after-school and community activities, and a communal space for visitors.
"People aren't running away from probation, they're coming to probation," said Coachman. "If you're supposed to see a kid once every two weeks, they wanna see you every week."
New York's five Family Courts, which have jurisdiction over juvenile cases, refer about 4,500 youth to the Department of Probation every year. Currently, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit a crime are treated as adults and not juveniles and these cases go through adult criminal court. A bill is currently pending that would raise the age of criminal responsibility and transfer 86 percent of cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds to family court. Many of these would end up with the Department of Probation.
"We're looking forward to it [the bill], we're open to it," said Spear. "It's gonna be a big lift and a lot of stakeholders understand that, but I think it's gonna work out."
"It's going to be better for everyone."