Brooklyn program lets low-level offenders take art class instead of going to court

PHOTO: Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez speaks at an event, Aug. 8, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.PlayLightRocket via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Project Reset gives an alternative to prosecution for minor crimes

A criminal record can leave a mark in any number of ways, but officials in Brooklyn, New York, are trying to make it easier for people to avoid such snags.

Eric Gonzalez, Brooklyn's district attorney, this week announced a program the borough's been testing that allows certain offenders to enroll in community programs as opposed to being prosecuted, meaning that fewer people will have criminal records or have to pay the costs associated with court appearances.

The program is called Project Reset. It's one of the latest examples of a pretrial diversion program that's part of an ongoing push for criminal justice reform across the U.S.

Project Reset will be an option for individuals charged with any of 18 listed misdemeanors, including making graffiti, criminal trespassing or criminally using drug paraphernalia, to go through this program instead of be given a court date.

Individuals who qualify will be given choice of completing a two-hour course at the Brooklyn Museum, where they'll discuss a piece of art that’s related to social justice or prison reform and then create their own art in response to that discussion, or attend a 90-minute meeting at Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, where they can talk with social workers about situations "that they feel escalated unnecessarily and resulted in regrettable outcomes," according to a statement from the District Attorney.

"This program will help us handle misdemeanors more efficiently and equitably while reducing the footprint of the criminal justice system," Gonzalez said in the statement released Wednesday. "This program addresses the conduct of those who commit misdemeanor offenses and confronts the consequences of their actions in a more meaningful way than traditional court sanctions."

PHOTO: Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez speaks at an event, Aug. 8, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez speaks at an event, Aug. 8, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Project Reset started as a pilot program for teenagers in 2015 and has expanded to include the entire borough. So far, 182 people have completed the program, including 41 at the Brooklyn Museum, according to the statement.

Officials expect individuals in more than 1,000 cases will be eligible each year.

Unlike some pretrial diversion programs, there are no fees associated with enrolling, which criminal justice reform advocates point to as a problematic factor in similar programs.

Lucy Lang, a former prosecutor and current executive director for the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, said that she thinks programs like Project Reset are "the future of criminal justice, so I am very optimistic about it."

"Pretrial diversion is not new," Lang said. "What is new over the past couple of years has been the formal implementation of policies that encourage pretrial diversion in particular categories of cases, and that’s usually a combination of something about the person who's charged -- like their age -- and something about the charge itself."

"Pretrial diversion," she added, "is really intended to fix the underlying problems as much as it can, and not be punitive."