Last Wednesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez joined elected officials, public defenders and the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) at the Brooklyn Museum to announce the expansion of Project Reset, the diversion program now in effect throughout the borough.
“This is a new approach for handling low-level misdemeanor arrests,” Gonzalez said. “It’s an approach that I believe will reduce recidivism and make our justice system more fair for so many more people.”
Under the current system, people who are arrested or low-level misdemeanors like shoplifting or fare evasion go to criminal court. They wait for hours, even days, until their lawyer negotiates a conditional release, Gonzalez said.
With Project Reset, following an arrest the district attorney’s office reviews the case to determine if it is eligible for the diversion program.
Twelve types of non-violent misdemeanors are eligible under the initiative, including criminal trespassing, graffiti, petit larceny and disorderly conduct.
Drug offenses are not included in the program because those cases are referred to Brooklyn Collaborative Legal Engagement Assistance Response (CLEAR), another initiative referring offenders to community-based treatment services.
If the case is eligible, the DA’s office refers the accused to a public defense agency, such as Brooklyn Defenders Services or the Legal Aid Society. Those agencies have seven days to inform their clients about their options.
A representative from the Center for Court Innovation, a partner organization in Project Reset, then explains the program in more detail and offers the person an opportunity to take an arts-based course.
“It’s about holding people accountable, but doing it in ways that promote human dignity,” Gonzalez said, “that helps them think about their conduct, and provides them with tools to contribute back to their community.”
One course option is “Tools for New Thinking,” a 90-minute group session held at Brooklyn Justice Initiatives (BJI), a CCI project in Downtown Brooklyn. Adult participants, working with social workers, identify and discuss the situations that they feel “escalated unnecessarily and resulted in regrettable outcomes.”
Those who need special services can also be given individualized sessions and resources, Gonzalez said.
In a new partnership with Project Reset, the Brooklyn Museum also offers two courses, one for adults up to 25 years old and another for adults age 26 and up.
In the two-hour curriculum, participants view, analyze and discuss a work of art from the museum’s permanent collection in a group setting. The discussion is led by teaching artists, including Craig Blue and Sophia Dawson.
The participants are then asked to create their own artwork in response to the discussion, and think about the meaning of their artwork.
“Art has the ability to transform people’s lives and provide new perspectives and beliefs,” Gonzalez said.
Upon completion, representatives from CCI will notify the DA’s office, which will then decline to prosecute the arrest. The case is sealed and the person no longer has to appear in court.
Project Reset was piloted four years ago in Brownsville with 16- and 17-year-olds. A CCI evaluation found that participants were significantly less likely to get re-arrested or convicted of another crime within one year compared to defendants in a comparison group.
Additionally, 95 percent of participants said they “made the right decision” by entering the program and would recommend it to someone in a similar position, Gonzalez said.
Since the project launched in May 2019 in all ten north Brooklyn precincts –– and then expanded to the entire borough in August –– 182 people have completed the program, including 51 who attended sessions at the Brooklyn Museum.
Though Gonzalez estimates that more than 1,000 cases will be eligible annually, that number may “grow exponentially” when new criminal justice and bail reform laws take effect in January.
The Brooklyn DA said the initiative will lead to better outcomes and increased public safety.
“We’re freeing our courts and our district attorneys to deal with more serious cases,” he said. “We offer a positive intervention and a turning point for individuals instead of a revolving door back to the system.”
One participant who has gone through Project Reset is Jessy Singh from Canarsie, who was with a friend who was shoplifting.
“It definitely helped me avoid the anxiety of having to attend a court date for a mistake I made,” she said.
Singh added that programs like this are “really important for our community.” As an artist, she said she couldn’t have chosen a better venue than the Brooklyn Museum.
“It helped to make me feel like a human in a system that often criminalizes people for the smallest of things,” she said.
After the pilot, Project Reset ran into funding “difficulties,” Gonzalez said. But thanks to funding from the City Council and the de Blasio administration, and private funding from the Cohen Foundation, the Tow Foundation and the Arts for Justice Fund, the program is growing outside of Brooklyn.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson said at the announcement that the initiative will expand to all five boroughs.
“Funding this program is really a no-brainer,” he said. “It aligns with the mission that we all share abound ending a criminal justice system that turns minor offenses into lifelong problems.”
Johnson said the timelines for implementation differ per borough, based on the district attorneys. However, it’s operational in Manhattan and the Bronx DA’s office has “started conversations.”
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm to do this work,” Gonzalez said, “to have meaningful intervention.”