Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Steve Levin and Brad Lander Let Down Constituents

I want to preface this article by saying that Councilmember Brad Lander has been doing some good things recently which I want to acknowledge before I lay into him on this issue. In particular I want to re-emphasize the good work Brad Lander has been doing with the Center for Anti-violence Education (which my wife teaches at) to get self-defense classes for women in the areas where there have been a spate of assaults on women. But there is another issue where Brad Lander and fellow Councilmember Steve Levin have made, in my mind, a serious error.

It all started with my building's resident Yenta (by her own admission) asking me why 7th Ave is no longer being cleaned up. Until recently, she observed, men in blue outfits (a collaboration between the city and the Doe Fund aimed to help the homeless and parolees transition back into society and employment) would help the city empty the garbage and clean the streets. Recently those blue-uniformed men disappeared from 7th Avenue and in their place garbage piled up everywhere adding to what my wife already referred to as the "7th Ave. Stink." I have to say 7th Ave. smells worse on average than any other street I personally walk down in Brooklyn or Manhattan. And now that the Doe Fund people have disappeared from 7th Ave. the stink is getting worse.

To me this is not, however, primarily about the cleanliness of our neighborhood. It is about a program that is one of the most successful in the nation in getting homeless and parolees back into society. Here is the description of the Doe Fund from their website:

Ready, Willing & Able is The Doe Fund's holistic, residential, work and job skills training program which helps homeless individuals in their efforts to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Ready, Willing & Able has helped more than 4,500 men and women become drug-free, secure full-time employment, and obtain their own self-supported housing. The program targets the segment of the homeless population considered the hardest to serve: single, able-bodied adults, the majority of whom have histories of incarceration and substance abuse. Criteria for acceptance into the program is that the applicant be ready, willing and able, both physically and mentally, to work and maintain a drug-free lifestyle.

Folks, this kind of program saves taxpayers money in the long run. Like vaccinations and education, programs like this are one of the best investments society can make with taxpayer money. And, like cutting education, cutting this program is one of the dumbest moves a government can make because it will COST us all money in the long run.

Responding to the disgusting conditions on 7th Ave these days, my building's resident Yenta asked me who to talk to. I recommended several offices she could contact including city council reps Levin and Lander, who represent the area. She got nowhere with them. Here is the letter she got from Brad Lander's office:

Dear Ms. _____, Thank you for contacting me. Unfortunately, the blue-uniformed street cleaners on 7th Avenue were lost to budget cuts. Do you know any of the merchants on 7th Avenue? The merchants on 5th Avenue have formed a Business Improvement District, that maintains the avenue at a higher level of cleanliness that the Sanitation Department can do on its own. Maybe something similar is needed for 7th Avenue or merchants there could team up with the 5th Avenue merchants? Best,Alex

Now first off, I will agree with Lander's office that perhaps 7th Ave needs a merchant's association like 5th Ave has. That would help. But I also want to say Lander's office is full of it here. The blue-uniformed men form the Doe Fund who clean our streets are at least partly funded by discretionary funding (and some City Councilmembers, like Daniel Dromm, HAVE chosen to help fund it). So it isn't just budget cuts, it is also that Brad Lander and Steve Leven CHOSE to cut this program. They are using their discretionary funding money somewhere else (Lander may well be sending money to some of these self-defense courses for women in the area affected by assaults). Discretionary spending all too often goes to rewarding political supporters, and Steve Levin, at least, is part of a corrupt political machine that is infamous for funneling taxpayer money to reward political allies. I am not sure what Brad and Steve feel is more important than the Doe Fund, but they are giving misleading information to constituents and, as I will discuss below, to the press.

Again, I want to emphasize that to me the number one issue is NOT whether 7th Ave gets extra cleaning above and beyond the minimal job done by the city. The main issue is deeper and focuses on how we handle homeless and paroled members of our society. Do we find ways of reintegrating them into society or do we let them cost society more and more money because they never are able to become functioning members of society and instead wind up in and out of prison. The Doe Fund program always struck me as a win-win situation: neighborhoods got cleaned up beyond the minimal effort the city puts in, and parolees get a much better shot at making life outside prison work, reducing recidivism and hence saving the state money in the long run. Great, no? AND IT WORKS!

From "Women Out of Prison:"

Since taking office in 1989, District Attorney Charles Hynes remains an active proponent of reentry programs, like Ready, Willing, and Able, as a viable means to reduce recidivism.

“Reentry is the most important criminal justice issue we face,” said Hynes at a Roundtable Reentry meeting last November. “Putting people back into prison is, simply, morally indefensible.”

Unlike studies that show two-thirds of all incarcerated people reentering civilian life return to prison within three years, the success rates coming out of transitional employment programs tell a completely different story.

“When we look at the graduates of our program, we are finding a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent, compared to a national average of 45 percent,” says Lee Alman, Director of Public Affairs at The Doe Fund. “They are staying out of the criminal justice system.”

According to Hynes, joint programs overall that incorporate both treatment and employment for newly released prisoners have the effect of “reducing recidivism to mere fractions.” In 1999, Hynes created the city’s first significant prisoner reentry program, named “Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together,” and partnered with The Doe Fund to provide these employment opportunities.

So far the Brooklyn model seems to be working. As the city has seen a huge rise in drug cases since Paterson’s historic reforms this past April, they have, in Hynes’ words, “hardly made a ripple in Brooklyn,” because of treatment programs like ComALERT that have been in place for several years now.

And the savings have been significant. A study conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2004 found that the economic cost of drug abuse nationwide is $180 billion, and roughly 60 percent are crime-related costs (i.e., court costs, law enforcement, etc.). Furthermore, it costs $187 a day to incarcerate someone in the New York penal system. According to Hynes, it costs New York taxpayers $10 a day to put an offender through treatment programs like ComALERT.

THIS IS WHAT IS BEING CUT. Not just a cosmetic makeover of a fancy neighborhood that smells because Levin and Lander want to use discretionary spending on other things. It is a program that reduces recidivism and saves taxpayers, based on District Attorney Hynes' numbers above, represents a net savings of $177 per day per person that goes through this program and does not re-enter prison. That is what good government is all about but it seems it is not a priority right now.

My building's resident Yenta was not satisfied with the answer she got from Lander's office and took the matter up at Community Board 6. She says they basically blew her off. But a reporter was there and came up to talk to her. The result is an article in the Brooklyn Paper:

Park Slope’s main street has morphed into a trash-ridden dump after two city councilmen allowed a street-cleaning contract to expire — a contract that only came about because the Department of Sanitation couldn’t keep the retail strip clean...

That’s because the city’s trash collection schedule is not frequent enough to keep the bustling street clean — and elected officials have chosen not to renew a contract with the Doe Fund, a non-profit that hires homeless men for clean-up crews.

The Department of Homeless Services, in conjunction with the Park Slope Civic Council, first inked the one-year, $40,000 contract in 2008 in order to maintain the street beyond the city’s duties. Now, Councilman Steve Levin (D–Park Slope) and Councilman Brad Lander (D–Park Slope) say the contract, which had been renewed for three years, is no longer cost-effective and sustainable...

Now let me stop Lander and Levin right there. Not cost-effective? Seriously? Do they not know that it saves us all money by helping prevent recidivism? Perhaps DA Hynes needs to sit these two boys down and explain some things to them. So let me be clear. This is the FIRST place where Levin and Lander are misleading...the program is about as cost-effective as you can get and far more so than average for programs funded by discretionary funding. I do know that tough choices need to be made. I hope that their constituents look REALLY carefully at the choices they make this year with their discretionary spending and see if it justifies their claim that the Doe Fund program is not cost-effective enough. Lander and Levin better be ready to defend the cost-effectiveness of each and every program they do fund after that comment. And I wish the NYC news media were better at holding city council members accountable for their discretionary spending...this would be a good opportunity, I would think. Back to the article.

The councilmen later sent a joint statement noting that avoiding teacher layoffs and firehouse closures come before The Doe Fund.

“We have had to close multi-billion dollar budget gaps,” the statement notes

Here is the second misleading statement. I am not aware that firehouses and teachers are paid for through discretionary spending. That strikes me as a straw man argument. Again, I am sure Levin and Lander do have to make tough choices with their discretionary spending, but to imply that firehouses will close and teachers get laid off if they funded the Ready, Willing and Able program is just plain misleading. And the Brooklyn Paper should have caught that, quite honestly.

Again, I do agree with Lander and Levin that perhaps it is time for a 7th Ave. merchant's association to help out. But that attitude assumes that the only benefit is a more pleasant street. That is not true. Councilmember Daniel Dromm knows that the benefits are much more than that and HE has funded the program in his district where Levin and Lander have not. That may be a justifiable decision on Lander and Levin's parts, but it is hard to tell if that is so when their statements to constituents and to the press are misleading on what the benefits of the Doe Fund are and where the money really comes from. You made your choices, Brad and Steve. If they are justifiable then tell us your real reasoning. Don't mislead us.

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