Art Program Implemented as Jail Alternative

Photo Courtesy of Center for Court Innovation

In the upcoming months, minors on trial in New York City can potentially be placed in the alternative Brooklyn Justice Initiatives program instead of being sent to jail. This program will be offered to minors accused of misdemeanors such as drug possession or fare evasion and will involve placing them in an art rehabilitation program instead of receiving jail time for their crimes. These minors, who would otherwise be charged as adults, will take part in “performing the stories of their lives and [will learn] about artistic decision-making” during their time in the Brooklyn Justice Initiatives program, according to an article on The program “seeks to forge a new response to misdemeanor and nonviolent felony defendants in Brooklyn, New York” according to the Center for Court Innovation.

The United States only accounts for 5 percent of the world’s total population, yet we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population in our country. Due to this, alternatives to jail are being researched and supplemented in order to cut back on the number of incarcerated Americans.

The art program runs for nine months and begins with a month of examining techniques of nonverbal performance as a form of artistic expression. The program is being run by Shaun Leonardo and the SoHo nonprofit organization called Recess. Leonardo, who has considerable prior teaching experience such as managing school, youth, and community programs at New York’s New Museum and working with formerly incarcerated people, ensures that the pieces the students are examining immediately begin to confront their feelings about crime, police, and being a criminal. Leonardo’s works also evoke “concepts of conflict, loyalty, or isolation” he said. “[The minors’] stories emerge right away.”

Leonardo has formerly worked with incarcerated people, as well as youth in New York City, but the stakes, he says, are much higher for this program “since the youths are already involved in the court [system].” Minors referred to Leonardo’s art program as a part of their court mandate are often assigned to other resources such as anger management classes or drug rehabilitation in addition to the art program. Ultimately, “Brooklyn Justice Initiatives seeks to use a misdemeanor arrest as a window of opportunity to change the direction of a defendant’s life and avoid the harmful effects of incarceration,” according to the Center for Court Innovation.

However, this is not an isolated incident of an artist hoping to use their passions to rehabilitate incarcerated people. Other artists like Andrea Fraser, Deana Lawson, Danny Lyon, and Cameron Rowl have sought to bring about awareness of prison life through documentaries, interviews with prisoners, or various art forms including sculpture and the written word. The movement towards alternative rehabilitation plans is broadening, albeit slowly and uncertainly, thanks to voices such as these.

At the moment, the long-term feasibility of the program is uncertain. It is only one month into the program’s pilot usage as an alternative to jail, so there are no long-term statistics on the program’s success rates available.

Questions such as the rate of rehabilitation of the minors in this program compared to those in traditional jail settings must be considered over time before one can outright brand the program a success, yet the Brooklyn Justices Initiatives founders are optimistic. They hope to also see social awareness brought about as a result of this program. Specifically, “it’s my responsibility to broaden awareness of the ways that black and brown bodies are branded as criminals,” Shaun Leonardo said. “Until we counteract that, the system can’t be broken down.”