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New York Probation Center's New Tack on Rehabilitation

Probation Becomes User-Friendly at One New York Facility
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Probation offices, where convicts must report regularly as an alternative to prison time, tend to be grim places.

But New York City is experimenting with a new kind of probation office — community-based, client-centered and attractive — that is putting a dent in the number of probation violations and repeat offenses.

South Bronx-based Neighborhood Opportunity Network, known as "NeON," is situated in one of New York's — and thereby America's — highest crime districts.

With regular poetry slams, on-site health screenings and fun job networking events, it's not what you'd expect of an inner-city probation center.

Lonni Tanner, Chief Change Officer for the New York City Department of Design and Construction, and Executive Director of See ChangeNYC, is in charge of improving city service centers. She transformed the old office space into something more inspiring.

"I saw a lot of people waiting, nothing going on," she says. "I thought, what if, in fact, this could be a place of doing rather than waiting?"

New York City Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who was responsible for putting the NeON program into several high-crime neighborhoods, says client engagement was a primary focus.

"What it’s really about is increasing public safety by engaging our clients productively, so they are part of their own rehabilitative process," he says. "It’s not just something being done to them."

While NeOn’s approach represents a sea change for many probation officers who are accustomed to the "trail ‘em, nail ‘em and jail ‘em" way of doing things, most have been won over by the strategy, some of them even participating in weekly poetry workshops offered by the facility's Poet-in-Residence Dave Johnson.

"The poems are here, they’re alive. They’re within the people," says Johnson, explaining that he believes poetry encourages soul searching and peaceful, effective communication.

Each of his workshops ends with a poetry slam where probationers, staff and community members can share their work.

With eighty percent of the organization's clients successfully completing their periods of probation — and the number released from probation early for good behavior has increased fivefold — some are beginning to find poetry in NeOn’s success rate.

Video produced by Daniela Schrier