Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in Brownsville this morning to preside over the opening of the first office of the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (“NeON” for short), a program that aims to improve the way New York handles the probation process. Joined by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Department of Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, Mayor Bloomberg touted the facility as a crucial step in helping people on probation stay out of trouble. “We believe that this new approach can make a real difference in one of society’s most intractable problems; the high rate in which probationers return to prison,” Mayor Bloomberg said.
The NeON offices are a component of the “Young Men’s Initiative,” a multi-agency effort “to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men” launched by City Hall in August. Unlike the current probation facilities, NeON offices are located in buildings that also house community programs. This means that probationers can be directed to financial advisors, housing help, parenting classes and employment workshops in the same place where they meet with their probation officers.
“For too long probation focus has been solely on compliance–making sure that those under its supervision show up to their appointments and stay out of trouble. That’s important, but too often, it is not successful,” Mayor Bloomberg said. “Now, most probation offices are located in or near courthouses, but this probation office will share a roof with a wide variety of high quality organizations.”
Next year, Mayor Bloomberg said the city plans to open additional NeON offices in Harlem, Jamaica and East New York.
Commissioner Schiraldi, who came to the Department of Probation in February of last year described the launch of NeON as, “by far the biggest thing that’s happened since I got here.”
Not everyone shares the commissioner’s enthusiasm about the program. Outside the NeON office, a small group showed up to protest against the facility with Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, who represents the 41st District, which includes parts of Bedford Stuyvesant, Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East Flatbush. They carried a sign that compared Mayor Bloomberg to apartheid-era South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha.
“Mayor Botha what do you offer us? You’re giving us: a parole office in the heart of our community,” the sign read. “Two blocks away there is a prison, one block up the street is a police precinct, one mile away is a juvenile court. What next a township pass?”
Councilwoman Mealy told Politicker she thinks the NeON office will bring crime to the neighborhood.
“They should be putting a youth center here, give us something of hope not despair,” Councilwoman Mealy said. “I gave them alternative places and alternatives. … After a while it’s going to be everybody from the whole city coming right here and they’re not even thinking about–even the people who will be coming here for parole, they could have robbed somebody in the neighborhood. They’re going to bump right into them right here.”
Councilwoman Mealy said she thinks the Department of Probation should stick with its current facility in Downtown Brooklyn.
“They could have put it–kept it where it was right there in the Board of Elections. Everybody knows it’s there, it’s secure, officers are there. Are they going to put police here? No. So what is their foresight in the future here?” Councilwoman Mealy said.
Commissioner Schiraldi told Politicker he has spoken with Councilwoman Mealy and thinks she has several misconceptions about NeON.
“During the meeting we had with her, she thought we were a parole office. Parole is a different thing–it’s state run and it’s people coming out of prison, they’re definitely more serious offenders,” Commissioner Schiraldi said. “Typically probation is a place where judges place you instead of placing you in prison or jail because they think you might deserve a second chance. It’s a much different group of people. We just tried to explain the time we met with her that we were probation not parole.”
Commissioner Schiraldi also said Councilwoman Mealy was incorrect in assuming the office would attract probationers from around the city and would not be as secure as the Downtown office.
“We’re not importing people to go to this office, they already live there,” Commissioner Schiraldi said. “There are no police officers at our other office either. We have security staff at the Downtown office in Brooklyn and we have security staff here.”
Commissioner Schiraldi told us he plans to do outreach in the community to get opponents of NeON to get on board with the project.
“If there’s opposition now, I think I just have to communicate, communicate, communicate with the people in the neighborhood until I have their support,” Commissioner Schiraldi said.