Jun 13, 2011

Judging Reentry: Judge Grace Bernstein's Thoughts on Harlem's Parole Reentry Court

Retiring after serving six years as the Reentry Court Judge for the Harlem Community Justice Center’s Parole Reentry Court, Judge Bernstein looks back at her time helping parolees manage their return from prison back home.

What interested you in the Parole Reentry Court?

I liked the idea of working with the parolees and trying to keep them from being violated. The other position I had was to conduct hearings to determine whether they would go back to the community or go to jail, and for how long. And of course, you don’t get to know the parolees in those type of circumstances, only seeing them for a short period of time. I liked the idea of trying to help people break the cycle of incarceration-getting released on parole, getting violated, going back to jail. I was impressed with the program when I first saw it and the opportunity it created to help break that cyle.

As somebody who presided over hearings, what were some of main reasons why individuals who came before you weren’t able to make it on parole?

I think there are three main ones and they are drugs, housing and jobs, though not necessarily in that order. You need to help people find a reason to break the cycle. Having a job that pays a living wage is paramount, because a minimum wage isn’t really a living wage. If a person has a history of selling drugs and returns to that, they will eventually get caught and go to jail, but they know that they are making real money in the meantime and can take care of demands from their families, etc. One of the parolees at the Parole Reentry Court, after getting a decent job once said, “I’m so excited I never made this much money before.” Then under his breath he said, “Except when I was selling drugs.”

As the parole reentry court judge, what was your role?

I saw my role as helping parolees understand their conditions of parole, helping them see the consequences of what would happen if they violated parole, and to help celebrate their accomplishments. I actually felt that acknowledging the positive was one of my most important roles. A lot of the guys very rarely receive positive reinforcement. When a parolee came and his parole officer wanted to put him on the calendar just so we could acknowledge his accomplishment, the individual would just beam. They don’t expect acknowledgement, especially from a judge.

Can you talk about how you think the clients benefit from their participation in the Reentry Court as opposed to traditional parole?

I always think the most important thing is the immediacy of how we respond to issues. The way this program deals with that is paramount to whether the program works or doesn’t work; if everything takes a long time then I feel it’s no different than regular parole. The individuals also have case managers, who take a problem-solving approach to parole issues. If I felt that a person was slipping and needed special help in a certain area, I could call on a case worker or the group specialist to do counseling or find services. I feel the ability for me to speak to someone and say he needs help now, not in a week from now, not in two weeks, not until a program could be set up is one major thing that distinguishes this program. We also encourage the parolees to keep journals describing what is going on in their lives. The journals helped give me a picture of what is going on.

How has the program evolved since you begun?

Honestly, the program has gotten better over time. I think we have an excellent staff and we have access to more programs and more diversity in terms of what to do with a parolee who has a problem. I think the best thing about this program is its ability to change and adapt and find new and better ways of doing things. I love that we now offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I had identified that a long time ago as something we really needed because I saw a lot of parolees that used drugs, but their main problem wasn’t drugs. They weren’t actually addicts, their basic problem was emotional and the way that they thought. Before, there was really no place for them, but now we have CBT.

As you look back at your time in the Reentry Court how you have personally been influenced by your participation?

I think being part of this, I hope, has made me a better ALJ (Administrative Law Judge) because I began to have more of an understanding of what the people who come before me are going through. I remember saying to one man who had relapsed on drugs after his cousin was killed, “Doing drugs is not the way to honor his memory.” He wrote in his journal, “Judge Bernstein doesn’t understand, I use drugs to take away the pain.” I learned a lot from that encounter. Really, I learned a lot from all the encounters I’ve had at the Justice Center.

The next Graduation of the Harlem Parole Reentry Court will take place on Thursday, June 23, 2011 from 6 to 8 PM on the Third Floor Courtroom of the Harlem Community Justice Center, 170 East 121st Street,  New York, NY 10035. After the ceremony, a buffet dinner will be served. Please RSVP: Edith Lopez, ELOPEZ1@courts.state.ny.us or (212) 360-4120.