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Making It Better

Pine Hills neighborhood organizes community advisory board

by Laurie Lynn Fischer on April 6, 2011

Since 2002, many nonviolent offenders have admitted their wrongdoing and arranged to make appropriate amends through Albany County’s Community Advisory Boards. Instead of denying guilt to bargain for a lighter sentence, they come face to face with members of the society they’ve harmed.

“We want to create a special Pine Hills CAB,” Albany County District Attorney David Soares said on April 2 during a five-hour countywide CAB training session at Service Employees International Union on Washington Avenue. Some 40 people attended, including seven Pine Hills residents who regularly contend with loud parties and trash thrown by disrespectful college students who rent off-campus.

Ordinarily, a third of first-time offenders wind up back in the criminal justice system within a year of their release from jail, Soares said. The rate of repeat offenses is 8 percent for those who go through the CAB process, he said.

“I came to it like a cynic,” he told the trainees. “Why? Because I’m a prosecutor. I sat back and I watched these people work with this guy who came through the system, time and time again. I became a fan.”

Restitution can range from community service to writing apology letters. CAB also contracts with addicts to kick the habit and with dropouts to return to school.

“Sometimes, repairing the community means repairing yourselves,” Soares said.

One of Saturday’s speakers was a 22-year-old who violated parole by driving a burglary getaway car. Thanks to “wise and very real advice” from CAB members, he is now working his way through college.

“I had the chance to go in front of the accountability board instead of facing charges that would prevent me from coming out of the situation with a clean slate, which would have led me to have very difficult problems getting a job and possibly even to have to live with a sentence of jail time,” he said. “Ever since I finished the community service with the accountability board, I have kept out of trouble, have been socializing with people who bring me up instead of bringing me down, and always will remember to never repeat the mistake I committed that caused me so much stress, as well as how much I hurt the community as a whole. I think the best characteristic of the accountability board is that it gives people who have screwed up, like myself, a chance to better the situation.”

Karen Johnson-Williams of Elberon Place took part in Saturday’s training.

“I live in the midst of the student ghetto and I’ve had issues with noise, dog poop, trash and other quality of life concerns,” she said. “The man who lives next door to me has parties several times a week. He told me to get used to it or move because it’s a student neighborhood. I look forward to us creating a CAB in Pine Hills to address some of the issues. Council members Leah Golby [Ward 10] and Anton Konev [Ward 11] have been talking about it for awhile. Today was the first step.”

During the kegs-and-eggs riot on the day of Albany’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, drunken college students spilled from Pine Hills house parties onto the street, threw appliances from windows, vandalized vehicles and tossed bottles at police. The melee was “only the highlight of what these neighbors have to deal with every weekend,” Konev said when the CAB training concluded. The idea for a Pine Hills CAB grew out of a conversation with UAlbany’s president that he and Golby began last summer.

“It’s one way to go to help heal the rift, because there’s a huge disconnect between the year-round residents and the students,” Golby said after the training. “A lot of them treat Albany as a playground.”

Drunken coeds stumbling home make easy pickings for muggers and rapists. That’s why UAlbany graduate student Donna Atkins of Hamilton Street carries pepper spray.

“I was in the middle of the kegs-and-eggs incident,” she said. “I’m scared when I pull into my driveway. I have to go through a back alley. I heard through a neighbor that a girl was raped there.”

If she and her husband decided to have a child, they would move, she said. In the meantime, she’s training for the Pine Hills CAB.

“We actually just bought our house a year and a half ago,” Atkins said. “We’re starting to regret the purchase. We have to make the best of it. We’ve had damage done to our property. Someone spray painted the “F” word in big block letters on our garage and the wall behind and put two holes in our garage door. They continue to throw garbage on our property. . . . I really think there’s an opportunity for students to learn about their involvement in the community. This isn’t just about repentance and punishment; this is about education. So far, I’ve seen that it’s definitely a gentler process, not so much confrontational. The plaintiff who comes in has already admitted to doing something wrong. That’s a great first step. They explain in their own words their motivation. We ask how they think they affected victims and the community at large.”

Pine Hills CAB volunteer Leslie Kellam of South Lake Avenue has three children in college.

“My middle daughter wrote her college essay about running down Madison Avenue on a Saturday morning and having garbage hit her,” she said. “What she said was when she goes to college, she’s going to embrace any community she lives in as her own. There are certain streets near where the students live. If you walk there after a party night on Saturday or Sunday morning, there’s just a lot of garbage. I’m pretty sure those kids were not throwing garbage down where they were raised. You’re a community member wherever you live and however long you’re there.”

Steve Friedman of Hamilton Street is a second-generation UAlbany graduate. He and a friend are entering Albany Law School this fall. Both took the CAB training.

“There are really good people who go to SUNY Albany,” Friedman said. “I don’t want a few hooligans to ruin the reputation of students, especially within the Pine Hills community. Instead of someone in a black robe, you have someone sitting next to you talking about quality of life issues that affect other people. The person brought before one of these boards will be more likely to connect. If you’re put in a place with a lot of criminals, it’s obviously going to rub off on you. Instead, if you put them with neighbors and other people who want to do good, maybe it will rub off.”