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Searching for a Solution Where ‘Fear and Weapons Meet’

Children walk past the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville, which has been home to the Brownsville Community Justice Center since March 2015. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

A woman walks past the window of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville, which has been home to the Brownsville Community Justice Center since March 2015. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

The second floor of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville is home to the Brownsville Community Justice Center. Participants of Project Reset wait in chairs before doing an intake session with one of the center's counselors. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Inspirational posters hang inside the office of Brownsville Community Justice Center Youth Justice Coordinator Kellen Felmine. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Two hours before a Project Reset case will be heard by the Brownsville Youth Court in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville, a man takes down a work of art from the wall. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Community Justice Center Youth Justice Coordinator Kellen Felmine points to a map of Brownsville that is hung in his office. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers prepare to hear a Project Reset case that afternoon. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers prepare to hear a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers prepare to hear a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. Community Initiatives Planner Sharese Crouther, standing, updates students on start time of case. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers prepare to hear a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers prepare to hear a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. Youth Advocate Mikala, 17, writes her opening and closing statements. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers discuss a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. Youth Advocate Mikala, 17, presents her opening statement to the judge and jury. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Brownsville Youth Court officers discuss a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

A celebratory hug between a Brownsville Youth Court jury member and Youth Justice Coordinator Kellen Felmine after hearing a Project Reset case in the lobby of the Gregory Jackson Center for Brownsville. (Rebecca White for JJIE)

Photos and text by Rebecca White

NEW YORK — “And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet — and they often do in urban America — there is always the possibility of death.” —Brent Staples, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” a 1986 essay in Ms. Magazine

Brownsville in Brooklyn seems to have more eyes on it over the past decade than most parts of New York; maybe even of the country. Over the past decade, it has been the focus of more than tens of thousands of New York Police Department police stops, and then of major newspaper investigations doing their part in exposing these stops — or violations — depending on one’s perspective.

For a section of the city that is less than 2 square miles, Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing in the country. There are 18 New York City Housing Authority developments, to be exact. Their towering brick structures are surrounded by black metal gates and lit brightly by NYPD lighting stands during the night.

Walking through the neighborhood, one sees names like Marcus Garvey and the Rev. Randolph Brown stamped across the gated entryways of their respective housing projects. You see poems by Langston Hughes mounted onto placards hung from the brick siding of the Hughes projects.

Is it any wonder, then, that Brownsville is the first Brooklyn neighborhood to foster Project Reset, the pilot program that erases first-time low-level offenses from the criminal records of 16- and 17-year-olds?

Just a few months into the collaborative program that brings together the NYPD, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and the city court system, 18 eligible teenagers have been counseled instead of criminalized.

Though that seems like a small number, the impact of the pilot program may increase exponentially if extended to every precinct in the city. One major hurdle, according to community partners, is a lack of awareness that the program exists.

If a teenager gets arrested and is told they can either do two after-school counseling sessions or appear for one day in court to satisfy their Desk Appearance Ticket, they may choose the lesser time commitment without fully understanding the consequences of a criminal record.

The Brooklyn DA’s office will evaluate the program’s effectiveness based on whether participants of the counseling sessions reoffend. The hope is that, even if they do, they understand the system into which they’re being thrown just a little bit better than if they’d never been given that second chance.

Read the full story on JJIE.org.

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