Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Funding or Defunding the Doe Fund...Council Members Brad Lander and Daniel Dromm Respond

A short time back I took City Councilmembers Steve Levin and Brad Lander to task for, what seemed at the time, a casual decision to defund the Doe Fund's clean up efforts in Park Slope. I particularly took them to task for misleading statements and for denigrating the Doe Fund overall, which I found difficult to stomach because the Doe Fund is one of the most successful (among the ONLY successful) organizations for reducing recidivism among parolees.

Steve Levin has shown no interest in this issue...or any issue in the district from what I can tell. I guess as long as he has the backing of corrupt Party Boss Vito Lopez (his mentor) he feels he can cruise along with no problem...particularly since he also managed to get the formerly decent Working Families Party backing him as well, creating a nasty and disgusting alliance between the Vito Lopez machine and a Working Families party that at BEST skirted the law, and in reality had to scramble to avoid prosecution after breaking some campaign finance laws for the likes of Steve Levin.

But Brad Lander, who I have had some serious disagreements with, seems different than Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin. Brad Lander HAS been involved with the community, even if I disagree with him on the Doe Fund's role in the community, and he took the time to respond to my article taking him to task.

Let me begin by reviewing what I wrote before, then quoting Councilmember Brad Lander responding to my article, then giving something of a rebuttal from myself and giving a different opinion from Councilmember Daniel Dromm.

It all started with my building's resident Yenta 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 while cleaning up city streets not adequately cleaned by the city) would help the city empty the garbage and clean the streets. Recently those blue-uniformed men disappeared from 7th Avenue completely and in their place garbage piled up everywhere adding to what my wife already referred to as the "7th Ave. Stink."

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. That is why I am interested in this issue, even though the 7th Ave Stink is also something I am concerned with. But the media articles that only focused on the garbage issue missed the main point. As did, I think, the initial response from Brad Lander and Steve Levin, though as I will quote below, Brad Lander has more depth to his stand than his initial statements indicated.

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. Here is the letter she got from Brad Lander's office (Levin, who actually represents our building, never bothered to answer...says alot right there about Steve Levin!):

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 misleading 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...more on that below). So it isn't really budget cuts that led to the loss of this service in our neighborhood, it is mainly that Brad Lander and Steve Leven CHOSE to cut this program. They are using their discretionary funding money somewhere else. 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. As I will quote below, Lander is making some decisions that I may not agree with, but which have some reasoning behind it. Levin may well be simply following in the Vito Lopez machine tradition of rewarding cronies and not giving a rat's ass about the community, though I don't know because he answered no one in our building on the matter.

I also should note that my building's Yenta had some very harsh statements about Lander after actually meeting him, though since I was not there I can't judge the interaction. She can be harsh, and Lander, in my experience, can fumble delicate interactions. I remain hopeful that Lander will prove a good Councilmember, but he failed to make a good initial impression on this issue...but after my original article, he took the time to respond and in that response showed a more thoughtful side that failed to come out when my building's Yenta was trying to get answers.

Here is Brad Lander's response to my objections to his decision...and note that it differs from what his office sent to my building's Yenta: (I left out parts...if Brad feels I did so unfairly I will repost with those parts added, but they mostly deal with his response to another article that both he and I feel didn't address the real issues)

First, thanks for your nice words on my support of community efforts in response to the awful string of sexual assaults in the area.

I wanted to respond to your post on the cancellation of the City’s contract (funded previously by City Council discretionary member-item funding) with the Doe Fund to provide extra sidewalk cleaning on 7th Avenue...[Here is where I cut something Brad may want included and if so I will repost including it...but I feel it didn't address the main issues I was engaging him on]

However, because you raised the issue of the Doe Fund in your blog post, I wanted to give you some additional background.

I’ve spent much of my career working on homelessness and affordable housing, and in my time at the Fifth Avenue Committee also worked extensively on supporting successful community re-entry for former prisoners through FAC’s “Developing Justice” program. If you take a look you’ll see that many of my member items go to organizations that try to help people get back on their feet, and address underlying causes. This summer, I helped Old First Church & the new Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network organize a new nightly respite shelter...[sentence fragment removed]

Many of the people who I most respect in this field – from the Coalition for the Homeless, and the Legal Aid Society – are highly critical of the Doe Fund. They believe that they pay the men in their programs less-than-minimum-wage, and that their programs are paternalistic.

As you may remember, it was the Doe Fund that bused homeless people to City Hall to support Bloomberg’s efforts to overturn the will of the voters & extend term limits so he could have a third term. And they were well-rewarded with increased funding afterward (maybe they could use some of the additional $10 million they got to keep the street-cleaning going on 7th Avenue):

Even before this, however, the Doe Fund was one of Mayor Giuliani’s most-favored-not-for-profit organizations, and founder/CEO George McDonald often defended Giuliani’s "approach" to dealing with homeless and poverty. You might also check out this article about McDonald keeping for himself $100,000 in prize money awarded to the organization:

All that said, we honestly cut the program because we simply could not afford it. Member items have been cut back, as the Council has tried to protect other things from the Mayor’s budget axe – not only teachers, firefighters, etc … but also some of the most important programs that address criminal justice, re-entry, and recidivism. For example, one initiative that I fought hard to have the Council restore, over the Mayor’s cut, was a $3.5 alternatives-to-incarceration & re-entry support initiative, that funds the best groups doing that work – including CASES, Center for Community Alternatives, Center for Employment Opportunities, Fortune Society, Legal Action Center, Osborne Association, and Women's Prison Association. The mayor wanted to eliminate the program entirely, and we were able to restore it. I believe these programs are the best at addressing re-entry (and related criminal justice issues).

But restoring cuts made by the Mayor leaves far less money for discretionary member items – in my case about 50% less. As a result, the Doe Fund cost about 25% of my total discretionary spending, for one street. Keeping it would have meant cutting another 10 not-for-profit organizations who rely on the small grants we are able to provide (like NYC Coalition Against Hunger, Brooklyn Housing & Family Services, CAMBA, Food for NYC, Center for Antiviolence Education, South Brooklyn Legal Services, etc).

Let me begin by emphasizing that Lander and Levin still were misleading in their response to constituents and the media, as I outlined in my last article. The cuts were THEIR choice and were not related to firehouses and teachers the way they implied. The explanation given by Lander in response to my article contains a good deal of thoughtful information, some of which I agree with some I do not. Had Brad been more up front rather than add his name to a claim about teachers and firehouses (whose funding is not really related to the Doe Fund getting discretionary funding) it would have looked better. Also, given the fact that the Doe Fund is viewed as having a very good record of reducing recidivism, Lander and Levin's claim that it is not cost-effective is suspect. A better analysis, and a more up front analysis, could have helped. I can point out a couple of instances where the Doe Fund's cost-effectiveness can be called into question (see below) but it also is one of the most successful programs at reducing recidivism (refer to numbers in original article). The benefit to the community of cleaner streets combined with one of the best records of reducing recidivism means it is a program that should not be easily dismissed. Brad Lander's thoughtful response gives some much needed background. The original misleading, glib answer was not helpful.

Now to start, I will give my agreements with Brad's statement. I also have criticized the Doe Fund for their ties to Bloomberg and their push for his third term. But in a nation where prisons are a sadly booming big business, costing an increasing amount of taxpayer money just to keep more and more people behind bars in perpetuity, it seems to me that the cost effectiveness of the Doe Fund is hard to argue with. And there are so few programs that succeed at reducing recidivism that it seems terrible to defund one of the few that works.

Let me review the cost effectiveness of the Doe Fund, even if they have their faults:

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. 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.

That may be my main disagreement with Brad Lander. He portrays the program as not cost-effective. I can't agree with that. His other criticisms I think I agree with. But it is the most cost-effective program I have been able to find when it comes to reducing recidivism. And so far nothing Brad has said counters that impression. YES they may be flawed. They have been criticized for paying their top execs high salaries (can I get in on that...I could use the raise!)...and they have been rightly criticized for getting too involved politically in Bloomberg's power grab for a third term. AND the Doe Fund may well be paternalistic and pay their workers sub-minimum wage. BUT...and this is the key point for me, they remain one of the most effective programs when it comes to reducing recidivism, and I consider this a VERY important thing. Lander has not convinced me otherwise here. The Doe Fund remains one of the best programs, even if it has its own flaws. Lander has not convinced me that he is supporting anything better. YES I may like the politics of what Lander prefers over the Doe Fund...but I remain unconvinced that the bottom line in cost-effectiveness and overall benefit to the community is better served by Levin and Ladner defunding the Doe Fund.

And I am not alone. Councilmember Daniel Dromm made a different decision about the Doe Fund. He chose to use his discretionary funding to support the Doe Fund in his district, continuing the clean up program for his constituents (the loss of which in Park Slope that led me into this issue) AND supporting the service given to parolees. I requested a statement from Dromm's office, asking some very specific questions partly based on Lander's comments to me. To give credit where credit is due, Lander went into detail. Dromm's office gave me a somewhat lame, canned answer. I happen to agree with the statement from Dromm's office, but it failed to address issues I specifically asked them based on Lander's statement. So, though I think Dromm has it right in many ways, Lander took more time addressing my concerns than Dromm did even though I asked Dromm's office very specific questions.

Here is Daniel Dromm's rather canned (though I thinks accurate) statement on his choice, contrary to Levin and Lander's choice, to support the Doe Fund in his district:

"The Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program is a win-win situation for the community it serves and the individuals that are part of the program," said New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-Queens). "It benefits our community by significantly improving our quality of life while giving the formerly homeless and incarcerated an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and make positive contributions once they re-enter our society. The Doe Fund is one of a number of successful approaches to working with this group and helping them to re-enter as productive citizens. Our City needs more re-entry programs like the Doe Fund and The Fortune Society, which I am also proud to support."

I agree...but Dromm did not address the issues raised by Lander about the Doe Fund. Even though I continue to be critical of Lander (and even more so of Levin who doesn't seem to even care enough to respond to his constituents on the issue!) the issues he raises about the Doe Fund are valid. I asked Dromm's office about those issues and they failed to respond. Pity. I would have loved to hear how they address them.

Bottom line is this. Levin has once again shown a lack of concern for Park Slope. Brad Lander does show considerable concern for Park Slope, though his initial responses were just as canned as Dromm's and less tied to the facts. But once challenged he gave a much better response than his initial comments, and raised legitimate issues about the Doe Fund, though I think his conclusions of the cost-effectiveness of the program have been proven wrong.

I do hope that the businesses on 7th Ave take up the slack and clean up the streets better. I know I am not alone in somewhat avoiding 7th Ave during summer months when it stinks and the puddles are disgusting soups of rotting material. But the main focus of any business association will not be the homeless and parolees. They have no real reason to reduce recidivism. Any program they choose to fund to clean up Stinky 7th Ave will not necessarily do ANYTHING to reduce recidivism. THAT is where I think defunding the Doe Fund screws over New York. We lose our best program for getting people out of prison and back in society. Flaws and all, the Doe Fund is largely unsurpassed in that regard. So 7th Ave is getting stinkier and less pleasant to shop along, while prisoners lose yet another opportunity to turn their lives around.

I thank Brad Lander for his response. Unlike Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin I feel both Lander and Dromm are interested in their respective communities. Both gave lame responses when first challenged on this issue. But I do feel both gave serious thought to the issue before coming to opposite conclusions. I happen to think Dromm came to the right conclusion while Lander did not.

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