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Back on the job: members of the Arbor Hill community accountability board, (l-r) Charles LeCourt, William Payne, Barbara Smith, and Victor Collier.

photo:Chris Shields

Justice by the People

Albany DA restarts community boards that make quality-of-life offenders take responsibility for their actions

‘There’s no such thing as a victimless offense,” said Albany County District Attorney David Soares last Thursday night. “When someone smashes a bottle on the street, there is a victim; it’s the community. . . . A young man who b

rought his friends in the neighborhood to buy marijuana might say ‘I didn’t force anyone to buy pot,’ but he has presented his community as a drug market. There is a victim.”

Soares was addressing a group that had gathered at the Capital Region Prayer and Healing Center at North Lake and Clinton avenues to hear about community accountability boards and consider participating in one.

CABs are a form of alternative sentencing. Low-level, nonviolent offenders can be referred to them with the agreement of the prosecuting attorney and the defense counsel. When offenders appear before the board, a group of people from their community, they are expected to explain their actions, listen to a discussion of how they’ve affected their community and/or the specific victim if there is one, and take full responsibility for what they’ve done. Then the board, the offender, and the victim, if present, collaboratively create a “reparative accountability agreement” that may include restitution, victim-offender dialogue, apology letters, community service, and items that will help the offenders get their lives together, such as job training, substance abuse evaluation, or further education.

>From 2003 to 2004, Soares ran a community accountability board in Arbor Hill as part of the District Attorney’s office Community Prosecution Initiative. Out of approximately 120 cases that the Arbor Hill board saw, there were only about 20 violations of the agreements, said Soares—an incredibly low rate for the criminal-justice system. The board members resigned in June 2004 after Soares was fired by then-DA Paul Clyne. Soares promised that when he took office he would restart and expand the program.

The CABs are being organized by Community Prosecution Coordinator Amanda Paeglow, who coordinated the original one under Soares. First, she said, the Arbor Hill board, with many of the original members, will go back into operation, and will serve as a model and training ground for people interested in starting new boards in their neighborhoods or towns. After attending a training session, interested people will sit in on at least one meeting of the Arbor Hill board to see how the process works in real life.

At Thursday’s meeting, two people who had appeared before the board spoke about how it helped them get their lives back on track, and board members spoke of the power of being involved directly in the process. “There was crying, a lot of crying, and a lot of laughter,” said board member Charles LeCourt. “There were these young wannabe thugs, who realized there was another way to go.”

“People regained faith in themselves, even though we were tough and didn’t let them snow us,” said “Mother” Conway, another board member.

“The traditional idea of punishment [is that] we identify what kind of harm the offender committed and we inflict some kind of proportionate harm back on the offender,” said David Karp, an associate professor of sociology at Skidmore College who has done research on community accountability boards across the country. “That’s really a passive idea of someone taking responsibility for their crime. In this model, the focus is on offenders taking active responsibility.”

Karp, who has been following CABs since the Vermont Department of Corrections started the first ones in 1996, provides the training for Albany County’s CAB members. The training has a few goals, said Karp. First, it moves people beyond two common misconceptions: that they will be acting as either a judge or a therapist. “The model doesn’t give them authority to do either one,” noted Karp. Karp and Paeglow both said that people who aren’t appropriate for the model tend to self-select out after the training.

The training also involves role playing to train people in how to deal with common situations and get them used to asking questions in an “open and nonjudgmental way.” For example, said Karp, “Someone with a religious background might ask an offender ‘When did you last go to church?’ You can see that’s a very biased question, and there’s an intention there about how people should live. The open version of the question might be ‘What in your life gives you guidance?’ ”

Karp’s example touches on a concern that some have had about the boards, since a large portion of board members so far have come from strongly Christian backgrounds. “The only way that religion should be brought up is if the individual going before the board brings it up,” said Paeglow. “Otherwise it’s not supposed to be talked about. The church will be brought up in a lot of cases, and if you want to go there, we can help you.”

When the first Arbor Hill board was in operation, Paeglow spent most of her part-time work week helping offenders who had appeared before the board carry out their reparative agreements, from overseeing community service projects to helping people identify training programs or navigate social-service bureaucracies. As the boards expand across the county, interns will share that case-management burden. At the moment, Paeglow has seven, from the College of St. Rose, University at Albany, and Schenectady County Community College.

As of Monday, 23 of the 25 slots for Saturday’s training were full (future trainings will be scheduled), and Paeglow said more people were contacting her every day. She also noted that Mayor Ellen McNulty-Ryan of Green Island has expressed interested in starting a board in the village, and she is in contact with other municipal leaders.

The commitment for volunteers is to make one meeting per month for a year, but Soares noted that many board members who expected to come the minimum amount found themselves coming back every week because the experience was so powerful.

“The untold story is what happens to the volunteers,” agreed Karp. “Unlike something like community policing, there is a direct connection with an offender.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

What a Week

We Don’t Have the Wireless Prompter Thing Set Up in Germany Yet

Despite insisting that a recent trip to Germany by President Bush was intended to restore trans-Atlantic friendships, U.S. officials abruptly canceled the “American-style” town-hall meeting trumpeted as the cornerstone of the visit when German officials refused to have attendees’ questions approved in advance by American officials. U.S. officials later agreed to schedule a new one, on the condition that two conservative American organizations with offices in Germany choose the guests. U.S. officials also asked their German counterparts to require anyone living or working along the route of the president’s motorcade to keep their windows shut, stay inside and otherwise avert their eyes from the president “to avoid misunderstandings.”

New Yucky

New York was recently ranked the “unhealthiest state” for diesel pollution in a study conducted by the Clean Air Task Force. According to the study, at least one in every 5,000 residents of the Capital Region will develop cancer due to inhaling emissions from diesel engines—a rate that, even in the “safest” of the local counties (Saratoga) is nearly 200 times the EPA’s accepted level of cancer risk. Meanwhile, Govs. Pataki and Schwarzenegger have been calling upon Washington to allow states to set more strict pollution controls than the feds set. Yes, that’s two Republican governors fighting with the White House about their states’ lack of control over their own well-being. Now who are the real supporters of “small federal government?”

So That Constitution Still Means Something After All

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for people who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, saying it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And on Monday, a federal judge in South Carolina issued a strongly worded opinion saying that the administration must either charge or release Jose Padilla, who has been held in custody for two-and-a-half years without being charged. The adminstration has circumvented the usual criminal-justice system by arguing that Padilla is an “enemy combatant.”

Count Them Votes

Can a bill to fix the nation’s voting problems pass a Republican-controlled Congress?

Supporters of the Count Every Vote Act claim that the bill, recently introduced in the Senate by Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), has more than just a nice name. A provision that would make Election Day a national holiday may make an overworked American populace feel the same way, but the bill still faces serious obstacles.

The 65-page bill, which also counts among its sponsors Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and (on the House version) Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-Ohio), would not only give the country a day off to vote, but would require a voter-verified paper trail for electronic voting, give people who committed a felony but completed their sentence the right to vote, establish uniform standards for purging voter records and counting provisional and absentee ballots, and provide for same-day voter registration, among other provisions. The bill also promises to reduce the waiting time at voting booths and require electronic voting machine manufacturers to not only make their source code public but submit detailed information about anyone who had a hand in programming the machines.

“It’s the most comprehensive bill we’ve seen regarding this issue,” said Ed Davis, vice president of policy and research for Common Cause, a national advocacy group that recently endorsed the bill.

And while the bill would initially seem capable of living up to its title, it’s not without its detractors. Some point to similar bills, also introduced this year in both the House and Senate, that focus more intently upon the reliability of voting machines and less upon the voting experience as a whole (no Election Day holiday or mention of waiting lines), as a more feasible option for curing the nation’s ballot-box woes.

“Several machines would fit the criteria we’re looking for, not just [electronic voting machines],” explained Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters’ New York chapter. According to Bartoletti, voting machines that use an optical scanning system—which some consider the most secure and affordable method for casting a vote—instead of the standard electronic system are not included in Count Every Vote. This, said Bartoletti, is one of the primary reasons the LWV has hesitated to endorse the bill.

Bartoletti and other representatives of local advocacy groups were also quick to point out that New York’s legislators have yet to reach agreement on the necessary state-level voting requirements to comply with 2000’s Help America Vote Act. As one of the last state legislatures to decide what standards to apply to voting machines, New York stands to lose more than $200 million if lawmakers can’t settle their differences by 2006.

According to Davis, partisan politics are likely to provide the most difficult obstacle to voting legislation on the national level, too. Republican lawmakers have responded defensively to recent voting-related bills, with many describing the bills as simply an effort on behalf of the Democrats to call the results of the 2004 presidential election into question. Davis added that the sponsorship of the Count Every Vote Act by such prominent members of the Democratic party isn’t likely to win any votes from their Republican counterparts, either.

“It’s a Republican Senate in a Republican Congress,” said Davis, “so no matter how good the bill is, it’s not going to have an easy time.”

—Rick Marshall

Quiet Before the Storm

Albany progressives promise an exciting election year, but haven’t yet endorsed a mayoral candidate

Ever since some of the elated crowd at last fall’s primary-night victory party for Albany County District Attorney David Soares shouted “You’re next!” at the TV image of Mayor Jerry Jennings, speculation has abounded about who the new political coalition that had formed around Soares would run, or at least support, in the 2005 mayoral race.

So far the public discussion has been remarkably similar to the RFK Democrats’ Albany-politics message board. An active thread on building a strategic case against Jennings centers around themes of closed government, “paternalistic planning processes,” and his associations with Republicans. A different thread contains a single message with no responses asking for thoughts on Archie Goodbee, who announced on Feb. 17 that he would run against Jennings in the primary.

Goodbee is a retired broadcasting executive, a graduate of Siena college, ROTC participant, and former president of the local NAACP. He has said that his priorities include lowering crime, especially gang and gun violence, dealing with abandoned buildings, and improving neighborhoods.

Goodbee, who said he was waiting to talk in detail with the media until he and his “kitchen cabinet” had refined his platform, did reach out to the Working Families Party and Citizen Action before announcing, said Karen Scharff, the local WFP chair and Citizen Action director. Scharff said both organizations were still meeting to figure out which specific issues within their usual priorities of “good jobs, good schools, good government, good quality-of-life” they want to highlight in this year’s municipal elections. Those issues will be incorporated into a questionnaire sent to all candidates, and on the basis of those questionnaires and interviews, endorsements will be made in April or May, said Scharff. “No decision has been made yet,” she said.

Helen Desfosses, who made a prominent and unexpected endorsement of Soares at a key point in the DA race, announced in early February that she would not run again for Common Council president and was leaving politics, ending some speculation that she would be the new coalition’s mayoral candidate. Although the mayoral race was “more difficult” in this respect, said Scharff, she said she expected candidates for other city races, especially Common Council seats, to arise from within the ranks of the new coalition. Several people promised contested Common Council races this year. So far, only Councilwoman Shawn Morris (Ward 7) has announced an intention to run for the Common Council president position.

Bill Washburn, who was very active in the Soares campaign, echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow volunteers with a cautious welcome to Goodbee. “I’m glad that Archie Goodbee has made a decision to run,” he said. “He’s going to raise some issues and confront the mayor with some issues that he doesn’t like to talk about on any terms except his own.” But Washburn acknowledged that it concerned him somewhat that Goodbee had sat out last year’s district attorney race. “If anyone’s going to beat the mayor, it needs to be a coalition of the magnitude David’s was,” he said.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

photo: John Whipple

Thank You for Your Support

Patricians for Pataki, a spin-off of Billionaires for Bush, gathered outside the Senate chambers in the state Capitol on Wednesday morning to thank the state senators “for their past generosity” and “increasing our share of the state’s wealth.” “We sincerely hope that the politicians we buy will continue to provide good value for [our] money,” said the literature they were handing out.

Mark Dunlea, one of the “Patricians,” said the Better Choices for New York Budget Coalition, which sponsored the group, decided to make the move into satire to reframe the debate over the state budget. Tired of always being put in the position of fighting to keep programs from being cut, the advocates wanted to instead shift the focus to New York state’s regressive tax system. Pataki has, and continues to, cut income taxes for the wealthy, but effectively raises property and sales taxes, which take a proportionately larger bite out of the wallets of lower-income people.

“If we just went back to the 1972 income tax rates,” said Dunlea, “Ninety-five percent of New Yorkers would get a tax cut and we would raise $7.5 billion dollars,” which, he said, would pay for the deficit and the school equity lawsuit, and allow the state to invest in things that need to be invested in, like affordable housing.

Why are Albany charter schools encouraging parents to try to enroll their students in a new public school, and why is the government paying for it?

For nearly a year now, Capital Region mailboxes, airwaves, buses, newspapers and television channels have been battlegrounds in the ongoing feud between the city of Albany’s charter schools and their public counterparts.

You may have seen the most recent postcard—it features a trio of smiling, multiethnic kids, one looking scholarly with a pencil in hand, one looking proud in a shirt and tie, one simply looking happy about the world of possibilities laid out before her. Behind the children is a paragraph of large, ominous text, with one section highlighted.

“Under federal law, students attending Hackett and Livingston [middle schools] have the right to transfer to a better public school,” it reads. On the other side, the postcard alerts parents to a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act requiring that school districts give priority for admissions (and transfers) to better-performing public schools to low-achieving students, regardless of where they live. This provision, the postcard states, would give low-achieving students from low-income families first preference at Albany’s new middle school at Kelton Court. (Not that Kelton Court has any performance track record, but at least the facilities will be newer.)

In addition to recommending that parents phone their children’s school principal for information, the postcard goes the extra step of providing the phone number for Albany School District Superintendent Eva Joseph’s office.

It also lists the postcard’s sender, the Brighter Choice Public School Choice Project, and in small print states that the cost of sending this postcard has been paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to promote public-school choice.

So in case you’re keeping score, that’s a federally funded program encouraging privately funded charter schools to promote parents’ rights to send children to their publicly funded competitors. Sure, it sounds strange, but the weirdness doesn’t end there.

All the other grant recipients are public school districts. The Brighter Choice Charter Schools of Albany and Buffalo are the only exceptions.

“It’s hard for me to know what they’re trying to accomplish with those postcards,” laughed Eva Joseph. “I’m not entirely sure what [the charter schools] are hoping to gain.”

According to Brighter Choice founder and chairman Tom Carroll, the answer is simple. “We’re just making parents aware of what their public-school choices are,” said Carroll, who was more than happy to rattle off where the $3.4 million five-year grant for Albany and Buffalo is being spent.

According to the DOE program that administers the Voluntary Public School Choice program, the purpose of the grant is to “support states and school districts in efforts to establish or expand a public-school choice program.”

Carroll admitted they are using some of the grant for consulting and administrative support for the charter schools themselves, which is allowed under the grant, but he pointed out that significant portions of the grant money have been spent on programs that support all public-school students, such as establishing and advertising new tutoring programs around the region through various nonprofit organizations like the NAACP and the Boys and Girls Club.

Joseph and other representatives of the local school district contend that none of the federal money is being spent properly. “Part of the goal with the grant that they had is to assist the district in enhancing its choice. It hasn’t done any of that with the grant,” said Joseph. This accusation makes Carroll chuckle. The local media blitz is probably the most direct interpretation of the program intentions, he noted. According to the DOE Web site, one of the more specific acceptable uses of the grant money is to “carry out public information campaigns to inform parents and students about public school choice opportunities.”

So why target the new Kelton Court middle school in many of the current fliers?

“The district is attempting to give preference to the largely white neighborhood around Kelton Court,” claimed Carroll. Will encouraging people to leave poorly performing schools for Kelton Court somehow benefit the charter schools? No, said Carroll, the charters each have long waiting lists already.

Carroll did, however, agree with Joseph that one key goal of the grant isn’t being met. According to the program, the grant money should also be spent creating “partnerships to implement an interdistrict approach to providing students with greater public school choice.”

Carroll insisted that Brighter Choice has been more than happy to work with school-board members from Albany and neighboring districts, but has met with a “less than receptive” response (though it has been able to cooperate with Schenectady’s charter school).

Joseph said the exact opposite is actually the case. “They haven’t done any [interdistrict cooperation proposals] with the grant,” she said.

“[The city school district] is in what we like to call the ‘petulant phase,’ ” laughed Carroll, adding that if the school district was so concerned with the way this grant money was being spent, they should have applied for the grant, too. “It’s like that old joke: You can’t win the lottery if you don’t play,” he said.

While Joseph ac knowledged that the Albany School District did not apply for the grant for various reasons, she expressed hope that the media campaign will actually benefit the school district in the end—despite being generated by the district’s chief competitor.

“Maybe people will see this as publicity for public schools,” she said. “I know we’ve been getting a lot of calls since the [Brighter Choice] campaign started from people interested in learning about the school system. Wouldn’t that be nice, if it ended up benefiting us?”

—Rick Marshall

Loose Ends

The Graduate Student Employee Union [“Hire Education,” Newsfront, Nov. 4, 2004] reached a tentative agreement on a new contract with SUNY on Feb. 18. The contract includes several wage increases, but also addresses many of the union’s top priority nonwage issues. In the contract: a discipline-and- discharge procedure (a first); 28 days of unpaid medical leave with right to return to work (mostly expected to be used as parental leave); a fund to mitigate the cost of fees charged to graduate workers; and another fund that will direct money to underpaid workers at the smaller four-year colleges with smaller budgets. . . . U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue has ruled on the much ballyhooed voter fraud lawsuit over the District 3 Albany County Legislature race [ “Primary, Primary Again,” Trail Mix, March 25]. He issued a default judgment against defendants Councilman Michael Brown (Ward 3), Jestin Williams, Dennis Bagley, Joyce Love, and Alexander McHugh, because they never bothered to respond to any summons to appear in court. Only Ward Leader Jamie Gilkey responded, though he took the Fifth Amendment 60 times during the deposition, and wasn’t even willing to admit that he knew his longtime friend Brown. . . . Talon News, the conservative media provider whose White House correspondent, James Guckert (a.k.a. “Jeff Gannon”), was recently exposed as the administration’s go-to guy for softball questions—and an anti-gay gay escort [What a Week, Feb. 17]—has closed down for a “top-to- bottom” review of its practices. According to the organization’s Web site, “while much of [the recent public focus on Talon is] malicious, [it] has indeed brought some constructive elements to the surface.”

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