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Pandemic Threatens Program Offering Minor Offenders Art Classes Instead of Jail Time

New York City’s District Attorneys warn that unless funding for Project Reset is renewed, the program will have to be eliminated in most of the city.

An exhibition of the works of graduates of the diversion program Project Reset (screenshot of Young New Yorkers website)

Project Reset, the New York City program that allows minor offenders to substitute jail time and a court appearance with an art course, is in danger of shutting down after City Council slashed its budget for next year.

The program, co-sponsored by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the New York Police Department (NYPD), has helped thousands who were arrested on minor offenses like fare beating, graffiti making, and shoplifting to avoid a criminal record by participating in art programs at the Brooklyn Museum or with the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Young New Yorkers (YNY).

A City Council spokesperson confirmed to Hyperallergic that the administration has designated $710,000 for Project Reset in the Bronx in the fiscal year 2021, as it did last year, but did not renew funds for the program in the other four boroughs due to the deficits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. warns that unless the city renews funds for the program next year, his office will be forced to wind down the program in the fall.

“Project Reset is an essential component of a modern prosecutor’s office,” Vance told Hyperallergic in an email. “At a time when New Yorkers are demanding alternatives to incarceration and a more equitable justice system, it would be a shame for City lawmakers to let this program end.”

On September 9, Vance and all other New York District Attorneys — Darcel D. Clark (Bronx); Eric Gonzalez (Brooklyn); Melinda Katz (Queens); Michael E. McMahon (Richmond County) — sent a letter to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Speaker Corey Johnson, urging them to reverse their decision to slash funds for Project Reset in most of New York City.

“Project Reset takes a behaviorally informed approach to offer participants meaningful resources and opportunities and a chance to reflect and learn from their mistakes,” the DAs wrote. “It is precisely the type of reform and jail reduction strategy that New Yorkers are demanding of law enforcement and our courts.”

“The impact of this relatively modest program is far-reaching, and helps to build trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” the letter continues. “The amount our offices are seeking is readily offset by the savings gained in terms of improved court efficiency, faster case processing times, and most importantly, reduced incarceration and convictions, which have a well-documented destabilizing impact on individuals, families, and communities.”

Mayor de Blasio’s office has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Against this background, about 100 Project Reset graduates presented their work last week in a virtual exhibition hosted by YNY and MoMA PS1. The virtual exhibition shows portraits of the graduates suspended with pink balloons over PS1’s courtyard. A click on the portraits plays audio recordings in which the graduates, all between ages 16-25, share their stories in their own voice.

Carri Twigg, a Cultural Ambassador for YNY, shared her story in a virtual walkthrough held on October 7.

“Growing up between 15 and 19, I was arrested more than a handful of times,” Twigg said. “Like other folks in Project Reset, I was given an opportunity to try again.”

After graduating from a diversion program, Twigg went on to become a special assistant to President Barack Obama during his administration and also worked as Director of Public Engagement for Vice President Joe Biden.

“I wouldn’t have been able to get that job if it weren’t for diversion programs and civic leaders who focused on young people getting more than one shot to make choices,” Twigg said.

Amira, a 19-year-old graduate of Project Reset, said: “I knew I deserved a second chance. I know I don’t deserve records following me for the rest of my life because of what I did.”

The teenager, who was arrested on graffiti charges when she was 18, added: “It’s way more important to nurture and not punish … I know for a fact that I learned more being helped through that situation than I would have if I had been judged and blamed.”

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