Reform and Real Estate in Gentrifying Brooklyn
New York was once described much the way Detroit is now. Empty buildings competed with mysterious arsons as code for urban blight. Postwar downtown neighborhoods were largely abandoned to the poor and working-class, including large African American and Puerto Rican communities. Capitalist speculators viewed the city as a hostile landscape, replete with busted infrastructure, social drop-outs, and sunken property values. With the restructuring of the global economy and the turn toward service, recreation, and consumption in urban centers across the West in the 1970s, however, money started to come back to New York City. Gentrification, that urban process characterized by the forced residential displacement of those without resources by those with means, and the recoupment of profit via rising real estate values, transformed neighborhoods like the Lower East Side and Brooklyn Heights into enclaves of wealth and whiteness. Since the late 1980s, even the far limits of downtown squalor have been colonized by prosperity, with capital showing no sign of abandoning its domination of the city. Today, the children of privilege circle the blocks below Houston Street admiring the architecture and every neighborhood in Manhattan—and increasingly Brooklyn—takes its turn as the subject of a lifestyle piece in a glossy magazine.
The seminal economic geographer of gentrification, Neil Smith, argues that gentrification has long ceased to be a marginal urban process, relegated to one or two areas of major metropolis (Smith 2002). Rather, gentrification has become so generalized that, in some cities, like New York, there are few neighborhoods left that have withstood the encroachment of speculative real-estate development. One partial bulwark against such encroachment is crime, or rather fear of crime, a central trope in folklore about New York in the 1970s and 1980s. “Crime surpasses healthcare and ‘the economy’ as current public anxiety number one,” suggests Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “even though it is well reported that in recent years average crime rates have gone down” (Gilmore 1994, quoted in Smith 1996, 209). In Brooklyn, the borough of New York today witnessing the most rapid transformations in wealth and race composition, perceptions of crime continue to organize property speculation. This is true, perhaps, nowhere as palpably as in the majority-poor, majority–African American, and intensively policed Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.
Brownsville is also, more recently, a frequently cited example of neighborhood-based efforts to interrupt the cycle of mass incarceration, specifically through so-called alternatives to incarceration programming such as the Brownsville Anti-Violence Project (BAVP) and the Brownsville Youth Court (BYC), on which much of this chapter focuses. In September 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it would be allocating $599,000 in funding toward the BAVP. This was just one bundle out of $11 million in grants the DOJ distributed throughout fifteen neighborhoods across the United States. Denise O’Donnell, Bureau of Justice Assistance Director, said at the time: “This program is not about the federal government changing neighborhoods. It’s about community members and stakeholders working together to identify priorities and solutions to persistent crime problems” (quoted in Center for Court Innovation 2012). The program is one of many initiatives taken in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis and attendant penal reform efforts, which have so far tended less toward downsizing corrections spending and more toward the allocation of increased funds into private-public initiatives launched in the names of justice reinvestment, antirecidivism, and reentry.
Justice reinvestment, originally conceived as a financial accountability mechanism, has proven to be a particularly popular policy mantle for fiscally oriented prison reform initiatives focused on reducing and reorganizing state correctional expenditure (Cadora 2014, 280). Formally institutionalized as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) and adopted as a project of the Council of State Governments, the national association of state legislators and executive branch government leaders, justice reinvestment offers a policy canopy under which states can ostensibly downsize their spending on prisons under the guise of criminal-justice reform. In 2011, Congress passed the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act, which essentially authorizes the Bureau of Justice Assistance to provide monies for states to reduce their correctional expenditures and manage their correctional populations and then reinvest that money in neighborhood-based crime and recidivism-reducing efforts such as the BAVP and BYC.
Indeed, the current period has witnessed a proliferation of state initiatives, usually underwritten by the criminal-justice apparatus in partnership with a variety of private agencies and civil society organizations, that target particular urban neighborhoods as key sites of intervention in the name of prison reform. This agenda has accelerated in the wake of the 2008 fiscal crisis and subsequent pressures to stem massive prison-cost overruns. Both the BYC and the BAVP are emblematic of this increased allocation of state funding for private-public partnerships sited in prisoners’ home communities and represented as carceral alternatives. This is a phenomenon, I argue, that must be examined within the broader context of the borough’s real-estate pressures and generalized gentrification across the financially booming urban terrain of New York City. So examined, the BAVP and BYC demonstrate how neoliberal prison-reform strategies can serve to reproduce, rather than upend, the dynamics of criminalization, economic displacement, and racialized social control in urban space. They also demonstrate how even so-called incarceration alternatives can be impelled by the property relation and the search for profit in urban real-estate markets.
Brownsville and Its Discontents
Encompassing approximately two square miles, Brownsville is a majority-poor and predominantly African American neighborhood of 86,000 people in central Brooklyn. With 39 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line and a median household income of $23,000, Brownsville is nearly twice as poor as the city as a whole. Unemployment rates stand in a similar proportion: 17 percent of its residents (twice that of New York’s average) are unemployed (Bellafante 2013). Brownsville also hosts the largest concentration of public housing in the United States. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) runs eighteen separate buildings in the neighborhood, and almost one-third of the neighborhood’s residents live in public housing (Smith 2013). As one journalist in a recent magazine profile of the neighborhood put it, bleakly, “according to nearly every metric of social malady, Brownsville is ranked among the most imperiled places in the city. Brownsville has the highest incidence of infant mortality, for instance, as well as the highest percentage of pre-pregnancy obesity among mothers” (Smith 2013). Meanwhile, one out of every ten males aged sixteen to twenty-five is incarcerated (Winsa 2008).
Brownsville is the source of so many of the state’s prisoners that it has been designated home to multiple “million-dollar blocks” and multi-million-dollar blocks. The million-dollar block is a carceral and cartographic phenomenon first mapped in the United States in the early 2000s. Originally designed as a progressive instrument for advocating for prison downsizing, the million dollar block refers to the spatially concentrated urban origins of the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom come from just a handful of neighborhoods in the country’s biggest cities. In many places the concentration is so dense that states are spending in excess of a million dollars a year to incarcerate the residents of single city blocks (Cadora and Kurgan 2006).
Brownsville’s impoverishment stands in particular contrast to surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods, which, while also historically poor and black, have seen soaring rents and transformed race and class compositions in recent years. Its closest demographic counterpart, nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant, was hailed in the New York Times as “Brooklyn’s newest investment region” (Hall 2000) back in 2000, a promise that the neighborhood has since made good on. In the decade following that proclamation, Bedford-Stuyvesant’s white population soared 633 percent (Roberts 2011). Meanwhile, laments and speculations abound on Brownsville’s own fate amid the rising tide of Brooklyn’s generalized economic pressures, with some arguing that Brownsville remains “immune to gentrification” (Bellafante 2013) because of its association with public housing and high crime.
There are, however, indications that the pressures of real-estate development will soon overwhelm even Brownsville. In an online architecture blog called Untapped Cities, Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association and director of the Center for Urban Innovation, asks rhetorically: “Is Brownsville Brooklyn ready for its Jane Jacobsian comeback?” (2013). The answer, she suggests, is a resounding yes, and as she makes clear, “Jane Jacobsian comeback” is a euphemism for the gentrification elsewhere electrifying developers’ profit margins. Among the hopeful signs she lists for Brownsville’s real-estate class are: a revitalized Pitkin Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), new condominiums, and a charter school that shares ground-floor real estate with retail stores. As Vitullo-Martin puts it: “Geographically, Brownsville is the next in line to receive the youngsters and members of the creative class (to use Richard Florida’s term) that helped pull Bushwick up from the economic devastation wrought by the arson and riots of 1977. If Bushwick, Brooklyn (despite high crime) can attract investment and income diversity then so, surely, can Brownsville” (2013).
In the real-estate section of the New York Observer, Stephen Jacob Smith notes brightly: “If trends in nearby neighborhoods are any indication, it won’t be long before Brownsville—a byword for blight, home to the largest concentration of public housing towers in the city and to this day a place that some mail carriers fear to tread—is selling something artisanal besides stamp bags” (2013). Smith here goes on to describe the inevitable economic encroachment as developers buy up real estate closer and closer to Brownsville’s edges: “Developers struck out as far as Halsey Street, only three L stops away from Broadway Junction, the gateway to Brownsville, during the height of the last boom, and ‘East Bushwick,’ which bumps up against Brownsville’s northern border, is again heating up.” The far eastern edge of nearby Crown Heights, which butts up against Brownsville’s western front, has also experienced rising residential rents and a real-estate boom, substantiating arguments that gentrification has now become a generalized urban process for major global cities such as New York (N. Smith 2002). In the Observer, Stephen Jacob Smith notes that “residential demand continues to far outstrip supply in the five boroughs and we expect that the gentrification bubble will continue growing at more or less the same pace it has been for the past few decades” (2013).
The headline of Stephen Jacob Smith’s 2013 article, “Closing in on Brownsville: Brooklyn Gentrification Nears the Final Frontier,” cannot but recall the title of Neil Smith’s 1996 work The New Urban Frontier. In the book’s introduction, the latter describes a “frontier ideology” put to work in the service of the class and race recomposition of poor urban neighborhoods. He defines gentrification as “the process by which poor and working class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished via an influx of private capital and middle-class exodus” (1996, 32). While structurally driven by the agents and imperatives of capital in search of profit, the gentrifiable neighborhood is often constituted ideologically as an “urban frontier” whose class conquest is hung either on the myth of “wasted” or “empty” space to be pioneered or on its perceived occupation by an “‘uncivil class’ whose behavior and attitudes reflect no acceptance of norms beyond those imperfectly specified by civil and criminal law” (N. Smith 1996, 17). In other words, if there are people already living in the urban frontier at all, they must be constituted as both undesirable and disposable for their displacement to be justified. The “criminal,” as a socially constructed category, has long operated as cover for both those undesirable and disposable.
The problem of “crime” has thus been a consistent trope in the rendering of certain urban landscapes as hostile to capital, both affectively and ideologically. Aggressive state tactics to combat crime have similarly been rationalized by the myth of a frontier in need of taming. In Brownsville, crime is named outright as the single biggest barrier to gentrification. One New York Times article, titled “As Brooklyn Gentrifies, Some Neighborhoods Are Being Left Behind,” does this by quoting a Brownsville resident asking, rhetorically: “Here, how can you have a cafe where people eat in the sun if they’re concerned about gangs shooting each other?” (quoted in Berger 2012). Meanwhile, the media has also reported on how “postmen are too scared to deliver letters and packages” to Brownsville, characterizing the area as “one of Brooklyn’s most crime-ravaged neighborhoods,” with one postal worker described as “terrified” and quoted telling the reporter: “The neighborhood is bad. . . . I wouldn’t want to go inside those buildings” (Bain and Gartland 2013).
While crime statistics would at first seem to lend some legitimacy to this fear, many accounts use arrest records as the evidentiary index, even while rates of actual criminalized acts remain unknown or contested. For example, one report begins by claiming: “Crime rates have been rising in Brownsville while falling elsewhere in the city.” It then goes on, however, to cite arrests, not crimes: “Many of the offenders arrested are in their teens. In 2009, police made almost 4,500 arrests of youth aged 8 to 24 in a neighborhood with a total youth population of almost 13,000” (Newman 2011). High rates of arrest and incarceration do in fact plague Brownsville. In 2010, one out of every twelve males aged sixteen to twenty-four years served time in jail or prison, compared to one out of every twenty-five males borough-wide (Newman 2011). This, however, does not mean that criminal acts actually occur in Brownsville at a higher rate than anywhere else, only that there are more police performing more arrests here.
Indeed, while arrest and incarceration statistics are used to back up perceptions of high crime, little is said of the role of policing strategies in producing such numbers. Police are highly visible in Brownsville, especially around the housing projects. The local police precinct, the 73rd, is among the biggest in the city and possibly the largest. Designated a “high impact” zone, Brownsville has long been flooded with novice police officers fresh out of the police academy. The NYPD’s highly controversial stop-and-frisk program, deemed unconstitutional in 2013, was enforced with exceptional vigor in the neighborhood. In the small portion of the 73rd Precinct that covers Brownsville’s public housing towers and overlaps with its high-incarceration blocks, 3,020 stops were recorded in the first three months of 2013. This is compared to 751 stops for the rest of the precinct (Brice 2014).
The years leading up to and immediately following the constitutional challenge of New York’s stop-and-frisk program were increasingly tumultuous ones for law enforcement in many urban centers, including New York. The increased visibility of and public attention to the deaths of young people of color at the hands of law enforcement during these years, including the high-profile choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island by NYPD officers in 2014, has provoked a new wave of public protest and unrest in urban and suburban neighborhoods. Stop-and-frisk policing is viewed by many as just one symptom of the wider problem of law enforcement’s biased targeting of young people of color and the neighborhoods they live in, a perception backed up by the data. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 87 percent of those stopped and frisked in 2011 were black or Latinx (New York Civil Liberties Union 2018). Faced with a public relations fiasco, the NYPD shifted tactics.
In September 2013, New York police adopted a new strategy in Brownsville, ostensibly shifting away from the controversial stop-and-frisk tactic and toward a targeted focus on “youth gangs.” Under the banner “Operation Crew Cut,” the police department has redoubled its policing efforts specifically against local “crews”: informally grouped neighborhood youth who “are organized geographically, around a housing project, a block or a single building” (Goldstein and Goodman 2013). Members of crews, police acknowledge, are rarely involved in the larger illegal enterprises usually attributed to gangs, such as drug dealing. Rather, their conflicts, according to police, are mostly geographic, having to do with rivalries over neighborhood turf (Goldstein and Goodman 2013). As a local resident and antiviolence activist in Brownsville explained to me, the crews are as much area-delineated groups of allies as they are anything else and their primary function is to offer a social support network: “It’s kinda like—I don’t want to call it survival—but it’s like, I live here, if I’m going to continue to walk through the neighborhood, I better have people around me” (Erica Mateo, interview with author, 2013).
Police have been quick to declare Operation Crew Cut a success, telling the New York Times that the operation has helped drive murders down to new lows over the past year. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is quoted as boasting: “If I had to point to one reason why the murders and the shootings are down, it is this program” (Goldstein and Goodman 2013). About 500 officers have been assigned to the department’s anticrew efforts. That number includes a division devoted entirely to gangs that has seen its numbers doubled, to 300 officers, and about 75 officers in precincts across the city whose responsibility is primarily to track and pursue crews. To this effect, social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have become important tracking infrastructures. Police also keep old-fashioned lists of teens believed to be affiliated with crews; in Brownsville, that list contains 178 names by last count. “On the street, the officers might pick them up for truancy or issue summonses for biking on the sidewalk, to reinforce the notion that the police are watching” (Goldstein and Goodman 2013). Indeed, through social media, minor incidents that would be considered outside the purview of law enforcement, such as arguing in the classroom, become, under this strategy, fodder for further police intervention.
What must be underscored is that strategies of geographically uneven policing and tactics of criminalization are as responsible, if not more so, for high arrest and incarceration rates as are any actual particularly nefarious or harmful activity on the part of residents. Yet it is precisely at the level of individual behavior and neighborhood-based social relationships that even the most seemingly progressive of Brownsville’s prison-reform initiatives seek to intervene. Two such examples are the BAVP and the BYC.
Deconstructing the Alternatives
The BAVP and the BYC are two alternative-to-incarceration projects of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), an organization founded as a public-private partnership between the New York State Unified Court System and the Fund for the City of New York. The CCI runs community justice centers in two other low income, predominantly nonwhite areas of the city, Red Hook and Harlem, and a total of five youth courts in New York and New Jersey. While the CCI positions itself as an incubator of prison-reform strategies aimed at creating “a more effective and humane justice system,” a close study of both the BAVP and BYC helps reveal some of the limitations and contradictions of prison reform executed through neoliberal logics and imperatives. Their operations illustrate how perceptions of crime and high incarceration rates in Brownsville have been constructed, problematically, as “neighborhood effects”1 in need of redress, thus facilitating continued and refashioned carceral state intervention within the space of the racialized and newly prospected urban neighborhood. A close reading of these two programs illustrates some of the problematic program and policy effects of contemporary prison-reform efforts in the broader context of neoliberal entrenchment, gentrification and the crisis of the carceral state.
Established in 2011, the BYC operates as both a diversion program and a leadership training program for young people. Youth aged ten to eighteen years are referred by local schools, community organizations, courts, and police for offenses ranging from assault to truancy. Located in a multiuse building just meters away from both the 73rd Precinct of the NYPD and the Crossroads Juvenile Detention Center (one of two such facilities in New York City), the BYC trains area teenagers aged fourteen to eighteen to serve as jurors, judges, and “youth advocates” and “community advocates” (the last two being the court’s terms for the defense and prosecution, respectively). These teens spend six months hearing real cases of other youths (aged ten to eighteen) accused of committing low-level offenses who have been referred to the BYC by outside partners. Those referees include New York City Department of Probation, the NYPD in Brownsville (73rd Precinct), the NYC Law Department, family and criminal courts, the Kings County District Attorney’s office, local school officials, and even family members.
Every two weeks, the youths hear up to two referred cases. The referred youth meets with his or her youth advocate and then, during the hearing, is questioned by members of the youth jury. After considering the information presented, the jury decides on a particular set of sanctions. There is no option for finding the defendant not responsible. Sanctions might include mandatory workshops such as “Better Decisions, Better Choices,” “Motivation 101,” and “Youth Anger Management,” or they might involve writing an essay in which one is asked to take responsibility for one’s actions and describe the harm one thinks those actions have caused. If the young person does not comply with the sanctions meted out, his or her file can be returned to the original referring agency (usually an institution of the juvenile justice system or the police precinct) to be processed according to the agency’s discretion. In effect, this means that the entire diversion process is underwritten by the threat of arrest and prosecution by either the juvenile- or criminal-justice systems.
The BAVP is similarly presented as a decarceration strategy, but it targets adults in the neighborhood who have been “justice-involved,” mostly those on probation or parole. It “seeks to improve public safety in Brownsville and enhance local perceptions of justice” (Brownsville Community Justice Center n.d.). The program describes its activities in these terms:
The Brownsville Anti-Violence Project convenes monthly “call-in” forums where parolees returning to the neighborhood meet with representatives of law enforcement, social service providers, and ex-offenders who have gotten their lives back on track. Participants in the meetings receive a targeted, three-pronged message: that future violent behavior will be rigorously prosecuted at both the state and federal levels; that many ex-offenders have successfully re-entered the community; and that individuals seeking help will be supported by the community and its service providers. (Brownsville Community Justice Center n.d.)
The BAVP is touted as operating “in partnership with a range of agencies and community-based organizations” (Brownsville Community Justice Center n.d.). To date, its partners include the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, the NYPD, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (i.e., parole), the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York, the Pitkin Avenue BID, and the Brownsville Partnership. It is important to underscore that, despite the emphasis on “community-based” organizations, all but two of the actual partner agencies are institutions of the criminal-justice system. Of the remaining two, one is a business improvement organization and the other is a well-financed not-for-profit, the Brownsville Partnership.
I spent time with staff and participants from both the BYC and the BAVP conducting interviews and observing some of their programs, including numerous iterations of the youth court proceedings. Four themes emerged that revealed a continuation of carceral logics and recourse to state intervention, despite their positioning as alternatives-to-incarceration: (1) the reification of the categories of crime as a problem to be solved and the “criminal” subject as the cause of that problem; (2) collaboration with law enforcement and the reparation of police–community relations as an animating goal; (3) the centrality of Brownsville’s branding crisis and the programs’ emphasis on combating negative public perceptions of the neighborhood; and (4) the deployment of neoliberal frameworks, in particular the dominating trope of individual responsibility, to explain and support the type and character of intervention being deployed.
At their foundations, both the BYC and the BAVP accept and reproduce normative ideas about what constitutes crime and the criminal subject as the cause of crime and legitimate target of state attention. As interventionist strategies, these initiatives extend the logic of the prison system in taking for granted the centrality of crime as the neighborhood’s foremost problem to be resolved. Their programming initiatives seek to resolve that problem by directing their efforts at its presumed cause: the individual criminal subject. This, for example, is how James Brodick, project director of the Brownsville Community Justice Center, characterized the goals of the BAVP during our interview in 2013: “There’s a few different goals. Obviously everyone’s going to want to talk about the main one, right? You want to reduce crime. So one goal of our policy is to kind of reduce crime in the community.”
The BYC, meanwhile, reifies the categories of crime and the criminal by precluding from its organizational premise anything other than admission of responsibility (and by association, guilt) on the part of the subjected youth. So, while the youth court is voluntary and presented as an alternative that families opt into, it is an option available only to those who forego their right to contest responsibility and do not seek to justify their actions in some way. During an interview I conducted with her, project director Sharese Crouther explained: “Youth court is voluntary. It’s an option that the families opt into. They can either accept the adjustment, or they can say this adjustment is essentially admitting like they did something wrong and . . . they can take their chances in family court and try to [find the youth] not responsible.”
The very structure of the youth court, therefore, takes as a given the responsibility of individual “offenders” and proceeds on those terms, with the youth jury listening to the details of a given case only for the purpose of deciding on the most appropriate sanctions, rather than possibly clearing the subject of responsibility for said deeds or learning more about the broad social context in which they occurred. Its very organizational conceit, therefore, would seem to contain the same coercive pressures that lead most defendants within the criminal-justice system to “plead out.” Faced with the choice between the greater prison terms and potentially harsher punishment threatened by a trial, the vast majority of criminal defendants agree to plead guilty in return for lesser prison terms, even when innocent or believing themselves innocent of the charges. In 2013, for example, more than 97 percent of federal criminal charges that were not dismissed were resolved through plea bargains, meaning fewer than 3 percent actually went to trial. By imitating this process, the youth court plays a central role in extending the responsibilization of young neighborhood subjects, foreclosing even the possibility of innocence, let alone any appreciation for the structural and social relations that cause, condition, or construct the problem of “crime.”
A second theme of these programs is a commitment to cooperation and even collaboration with law enforcement. This prerogative is echoed in the descriptions by staff and management of a felt imperative to repair police–community relations in the neighborhood. Indeed, at numerous points during my interviews, it was openly suggested that the programs served a key public relations role for the police department and related criminal-justice agencies. Brodick named this goal explicitly, returning time and again to the problem of negative perceptions of the police among neighborhood residents and the necessity of counteracting those perceptions and “repairing relations” between law enforcement and the neighborhood:
We want to work as a justice center to have police and community have better relations. . . . I don’t want you to leave here thinking that a justice center is like a hug-a-thug kind of place, where people get out easy. I actually think it’s the opposite—I think people are held accountable, but it doesn’t mean it’s held against them for the rest of their lives. . . . We constantly try to find a balance between good policing and good public safety, good community relations, working with both to bring them together. (Interview with author 2013)
Later in the interview, Brodick returned to the theme of neighborhood perceptions of police and suggested that:
It really is about police being perceived in a different way. . . . I think it’s that kind of moment where, as good a job as the NYPD thinks they’ve done and the crime stats say they’ve done, from their perspective, they also understand that there’s a public relations piece of this, and a perception piece of this, that they need to address.
When pushed about law-enforcement officials’ role in the antiviolence program, Brodick described them as partners of the justice center: “They’re at the table. The deputy inspector at the local precinct will talk about his role in keeping this community safe and keeping you safe, but also if you’re not going to do the right thing, then his job is to come down on you.”
This description of the program’s mandate stood in some tension with a counternarrative offered by Erica Mateo, a young woman who was born and raised in one of Brownsville’s public housing towers and who now runs the BAVP. She was much more willing to suggest that police have historically been a problem in the neighborhood and that race and racism are intertwined with the feeling on the ground that the neighborhood was and continues to be over-policed. “The only people that were white in Brownsville in the 90s were the police,” she told me in our interview, suggesting that, while more white people are now beginning to live and work in Brownsville due to encroaching gentrification, police still overwhelm the neighborhood. “And then the other thing is that, if you put a lot of police officers in one place, you’re going to find things! And that’s what it is; there’s so many arrests for so many minor things, like ‘general violations of local law.’”
Brodick and Mateo were being interviewed together, and at this point in the interview, Brodick cut in to quickly praise the efforts of police. “To the NYPD’s credit, I think they are using their resources as best they can,” he said. The real problem, he suggested, was not the police, but rather “the public relations outcry,” including resentment among residents about the aggression of local policing activities. A central task, then, as Brodick sees it, is to help ameliorate that public relations crisis in support of policing efforts. The BAVP has thus included a community-wide public education campaign promoting non-violence and “maintaining relationships with . . . law enforcement” (Center for Court Innovation and New York State Senate 2012).
Similarly, the Brownsville Youth Court’s mandate was described in terms not only of serving as an alternative to the criminal and juvenile justice systems, but also of better ingratiating the criminal-justice system with community residents. This work is especially emphasized within the internship part of the program, in which youth from the neighborhood are recruited and trained to play all the roles of the court, including the judge, jury, prosecutors, defense attorney, and bailiff. In a supervised interview I conducted in 2013 with two of the youth interns,2 both sources exalted the hard work of law enforcement and criminal-justice agents and suggested they would be interested in careers in those fields. One of them had an aunt who was a prison guard and said that she had heard volumes about how challenged correctional officers are by the violence and irresponsibility exhibited by prisoners. One of the advantages of the youth court, another interviewee told me, was that it showed that a justice system can be “less bad” than some local youth think it is.
The degree to which rehabilitating the police in the eyes of local youth seems to be a central goal of the court is worth underscoring. As the communities most affected by police harassment and violence, African American– and Latinx-majority neighborhoods such as Brownsville have historically viewed law enforcement with apprehension. The National Institute of Justice, for example, reports that “research consistently shows that minorities are more likely than whites to view law enforcement with suspicion and distrust” (National Institute of Justice 2016). Black and brown urban neighborhoods across the United States have also been the most likely to take to the streets to protest police violence. This was as true in 1967 when Detroit residents rebelled in mass as it was in 2014 when residents of Baltimore, Ferguson, and other major urban and suburban areas took to the streets to demand justice for black lives. A major effect of these protests has been to erode police legitimacy more generally, at least in urban centers, where increased attention to racial profiling and the militarization of policing methods has provoked something of a public relations crisis for law enforcement. This crisis, rather than the crisis of police harassment of local youth, is the focus of BYC’s efforts.
The BYC’s and BAVP’s concerns about the legitimacy of law enforcement and the criminal-justice system relate closely to a third thematic present in my study of these two initiatives: the centrality of the public perceptions of Brownsville and the necessity of better “marketing” the neighborhood to the broader urban community. The problem of perception of crime and a public conception of Brownsville as a neighborhood riddled with crime came up much more often in my interviews with program staff than do actual harm and violence. Brodick said explicitly at one point: “As far as the pathway we’re taking here in Brownsville, there was as much a kind of marketing thing, where we wanted to show. . . . folks who weren’t always identified as doing the most positive things, [and instead] to say, ‘Look! They are doing really good stuff.’”
Mateo chimed in to describe a public education campaign the project had planned:
I get really excited about this because it’s about creating messaging and images to kind of highlight the strengths of the community, instead of doing an antiviolence project that’s just about putting an image of a gun with a “no” mark on it. Of really taking a stance of just highlighting the positive of everything that’s here in Brownsville. . . . I think that’s going toward changing the perception that Brownsville is only violent, that everyone here is violent.
Attempts to flip the script about a neighborhood conventionally represented in negative terms is not a problem by itself, and it may indeed constitute an important facet of building community power and resources. However, the programmatic emphasis placed on the public optics of Brownsville’s incarceration problem cannot be disentangled from the real-estate pressures and perceived obstructions to gentrification described earlier. The fact that incarceration itself and its effects on individuals and social networks is secondary in importance to negative perceptions of the neighborhood should alert us to the conflicting agendas underlying and perhaps underwriting these interventions on the ground.
Finally, the interviews revealed the pervasiveness of a neoliberal rationality in the orientation, operation, and legitimation of both programs. The tropes of “flexibility,” better “outcomes and returns,” and the perceived advantages of private-public partnerships are all hallmarks of neoliberal discourse and policy and all permeate the mandate and operation of both the BAVP and the BYC. Highlighting the advantages of the programs offered by the Brownsville Community Justice Center and the BAVP particularly, Brodick boasts: “More information allows you to come up with a better outcomes. And that’s what the criminal-justice system misses.” Brodick thus likens the project of the Justice Center to the growing leverage of social-impact bonds, suggesting that inefficiencies in the public model of criminal-justice enforcement might be offset by greater involvement of private actors: “I think it’s interesting to get public and private monies to come in [to] try to solve these issues, by holding them to systems savings.”
One of the most persistent findings of my fieldwork in Brownsville was the way in which the solutions offered by these programs are deployed almost entirely through the neoliberal tropes of individual responsibility, accountability, and choice, rather than policy change, public investment, or institutional restructuring. Indeed, it is in their consistent orientation around the premise of individual responsibility and rational, entrepreneurial action that the BYC and the BAVP most resemble mainstream reentry services. Reentry programming, alongside justice reinvestment, has become one of the most popular trends within penological discourse and practice. Since the late 1990s, but especially after the passage of the Second Chance Act of 2007, major reentry initiatives have been developed across the United States. The act appropriated funds for community-based prisoner reentry programming and signaled the ascendance of prisoner reentry as a major component of contemporary state policy. Reentry services, handled mainly through probation offices and a slew of privatized reentry organizations, saw a spike in their funding from 2007 until 2013 (Byrd 2013). Every state has now established a reentry taskforce and created reentry service units across its correctional departments at both the municipal and county levels (Travis 2007).
Critical studies of reentry programming reveal important insights that parallel the issues raised by the community interventions being enacted in Brownsville. These insights bear usefully on the broader panorama of community-based criminal-justice-related programming forged under the auspices of corrections-budget-recapture strategies, especially those that, like the reentry movement, are deployed under the guise of augmenting the increasingly tenuous state project of mass incarceration. For example, Renee Byrd describes how the “responsibilizing” discourse of the reentry programs she studies frames both the horizon of accountability and possibility for the lives of formerly imprisoned people, thus precluding the social or the political as domains through which circumstances might be changed: “The notions of personal responsibility circulating within reentry discourse posit transformation as a process through which the state intervenes with the soul of the offender as opposed to a collective process of political struggle” (2013, 76). What these programs emphasize is change in people’s habits and choices, rather than in structures, institutions, or power relations. The vision of change they propose is thus limited to individual rather than collective action.
The central initiative of the BAVP is a monthly call-in or forum in which a panel constituted of law enforcement, former prisoners, and service providers “speak to people who are being paroled and who have a history of violent crime or of gun possession” (Community Justice Center n.d.). Mateo describes how the call-in is organized in partnership with the local police precinct, the district attorney’s office, and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. “The message that’s given to the panel,” she tells me in the interview, “is a message about choices and responsibility and accountability.” She continues:
And they talk about the consequences of parolees’ actions if they’re caught with a gun. They talk about a choice and the precinct’s role as a guardian of the neighborhood, to keep everyone safe, even including the people around the table. And then the discussion starts to shift. Then we get to the ex-offender who says “I’ve sat in your shoes before, and I was able to make a difference.” The person that we had speaking most recently is from Brownsville. He did seventeen years . . . So he sits on the panel and he actually gives a really powerful talk, about the choices he made to change his life.
These initiatives thus posit the behavior of the individual being criminalized and the neighborhood as spatial incubator for that behavior as the primary terrain for transforming both mass imprisonment and the community. Reuben Jonathan Miller (2013), an ethnographer who has charted the proliferation of reentry programs across urban communities, advances the term “carceral devolution” to describe what he sees as a kind of “double movement” of hyperlocal intervention targeted at former prisoners’ home communities, on the one hand, and inside former prisoners’ heads, on the other. Miller describes how the reentry programs he’s examined focus their interventions almost entirely on the character and behavior of prisoners returning home, rather than the infrastructures, institutions, and economies of home communities or the structural conditions of their lives. Thus, he notes how a programming emphasis on “work-readiness” preparation has almost entirely supplanted concern with (let alone support for) actual employment. He describes the dominance of such mandatory treatment groups as “the ethics of self-sufficiency” and the “maintenance of ‘pro-social’ relationships.” In their emphasis on personal transformation, job readiness, and individual responsibility, Miller argues, reentry programs occlude the structural processes that go into undermining secure employment while offering little in the way of material redress for the marginalization particular populations face within the formal labor market. What such programs do, however, is further expand the surveillance and control functions of the criminal-justice system within urban neighborhoods while simultaneously recasting “the role, force, and consequence of the state” (37).
The programs and sanctions offered by the BYC are similarly couched in entirely individualized, behaviorist terms, almost totally eclipsing the material- and resource-related challenges, including structures of racism and poverty, faced by their subjects. Sanctions dealt out by the court include workshops like “Youth Anger Management,” “Drug and Alcohol Information,” and “Better Decisions, Better Choices,” the latter of which “focuses heavily on decision making, goal setting, how to handle pressures from media, social media, peers, etc.,” according to Crouther, who describes the BYC job-readiness course thus:
What we focus on is how to really get someone ready for an interview, for someone who may just be coming out of prison or had dropped out of school, has issues with authority or whatever the case may be, just has had a hard time with anyone giving them a chance, period. How to walk into a room confidently, look someone in the eye when you’re speaking to them, or not to get upset, or upset with receiving a task to do that you don’t feel like you should have to do—“Dress for Success,” “Resume Writing,” all of those things. So that when they do go for that interview, they’re prepared to handle it. (Interview with author, 2013)
Like much prisoner reentry programming, both of these Brownsville programs assume and reproduce an individualization of responsibility for crime and its associated harms while also using techniques for governing populations. So, even while Crouther emphasizes the social-service side of the youth court, its programming is geared entirely toward changing “offender” behavior: “Here are the things that we can offer you to help you not recidivate, and not fall back into the same patterns that led you into prison.” The problematic event or action is interpreted through the individualized neoliberal frameworks of responsibility, accountability, choice, and consequence. Prison ethnographer Lorna Rhodes argues that the strong attribution of individual choice to prisoners—and therefore to would-be prisoners—is not only central to the contemporary politics of incarceration, but remains thoroughly embedded in a larger discourse of economic and social autonomy (2004, 10). In prisons, however, “choice is the currency that negotiates the resulting dynamic of domination and abjection” (66). Self-generated action is assumed to be the terrain upon which these programs do their work, just like prisons. The proper site of intervention, it follows, is that individual, including the neighborhood that incubates him/her as a choice-making subject.
Insofar as the BYC and the BAVP share with mainstream reentry programs an emphasis on responsibilization and psychosocial behaviorist conditioning, they perpetuate one powerful guiding myth about incarceration and the prison system writ large: that its origin lies in individual fault. The pseudosocialization of that fault to encompass the space of the neighborhood must be read as critically as we now read the “culture of poverty” thesis3 popularized in the 1960s, as a strategic and instrumental frame threaded through with racist and classist assumptions and deployed, in this most contemporary instance, to make the urban neighborhood available for capitalist recoupment by ideologically effacing its already existing social value and legitimizing oppressive state intervention in the lives of its residents.
The emphasis on individual responsibility also serves to obscure the structural dynamics and social relations at play in the lives and neighborhoods of high-incarceration communities, including racism, poverty, and chronic disinvestment. This mystification is particularly problematic when considered in light of today’s contingent labor opportunities for former prisoners. Rather than poor choices or neighborhood effects, it is chronic unemployment that characterizes and conditions their chances of reimprisonment, as does their systematic relegation to the lower echelons of the poverty-wage structure. In Brownsville, one in six adults has no employment whatsoever, while many others work part-time and/or minimal-wage jobs (New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene 2015). These numbers do not include the community residents who happen to be jailed and incarcerated (in fact, all conventional unemployment rates are deceptively lowered by concealing joblessness among the many able-bodied, working-age men and women in prisons and jails). For those with a criminal record, the chances of finding any employment at all, let alone work that pays a living wage, are formidable (Pager 2003; Western and Beckett 1999).
The Brownsville alternative-to-incarceration initiatives also widen the scope of police intervention while posing as opportunities for contracting it. For example, a feature of the BYC is the way it allows community and family members to refer children and youth to the court for a wide variety of behaviors deemed undesirable. Breaking an actual criminal or civil statute is not a requirement for referral and processing. This means that a parent whose child has not been arrested but who wants to, as Crouther puts it, “be proactive” and who feels as though it would be useful to go through some kind of court experience can also refer the case to the youth court. As Crouther explained: “It could be anything from a kid punches a hole in the wall, or destruction of property, or is exhibiting violent behavior. . . . We could have it fall under an offense. We would explain to the parents and child what they can expect to see . . . so they know that it’s not a real offense, but if they keep doing things, this is what it could eventually be and what they could expect.”
The resemblance of this aspect of the BYC operating model to the broken-windows theory of policing is instructive. Both operate under the assumption that crime is a sliding scale in which interventions in low-impact behaviors deemed undesirable, even if not actually harmful to others or even necessarily illegal, are a productive use of state and community resources in order to prevent more “serious” offenses. Broken-windows theory has by now been thoroughly debunked; its greatest legacy has been the escalation of low-level arrests and confinement of youth of color (Herbert and Brown 2006). Its echo in Crouther’s description of the BYC, however, is telling. The real productive work of broken windows, as an ideology of criminogenic risk operationalized as policing strategy, is to securitize real-estate investment capital searching for profit through the gentrification of systematically disinvested neighborhoods.
Byrd places the dominant reentry movement squarely in line with the neoliberal project of statecraft, insofar as it “expands the punishment system, shores up its legitimacy, and renders the system more flexible and cost effective” (2013, 67). Likewise, a powerful consequence of alternative interventions such as the BYC and the BAVP is to blur the borders between the space of the prison and that of the city. Despite representing themselves as critics of mass incarceration, their effect is to extend the power and influence of the neoliberal carceral state, its rationalities as well as its technologies, into communities and neighborhoods outside the prison gates.
It is well established that the massive buildup of the U.S. prison population known as mass incarceration did not develop as a result of rising crime rates or new trends in the so-called criminality of individual offenders. Rather, it has its roots in changing dynamics in the economy, state formation, and racialization processes, and it at least partly constitutes an expression of shifting state strategy in the management of racialized urban poverty (Simon 1993; Beckett and Western 2001; Gilmore 2007). The fact that it is urban, poor communities of color that bear the majority consequences of reentry programs and other state interventions positioned as alternatives to or ameliorations of incarceration must therefore be similarly analyzed within the broader framework of neoliberal state-building and urban restructuring.
Miller’s definition of carceral devolution can be applied to Brownsville’s alternatives to and interventions against incarceration: “A reformist shift in criminal justice and social welfare policy and practice where the state’s capacities to rehabilitate prisoners have been offloaded onto community based actors and organizations” (2013, 34). The offload is only a partial one, and indeed, the notion of carceral devolution aligns with other terms scholars have deployed to describe how the carceral state is restructuring itself in the face of its own legitimacy crisis. James Kilgore (2014a), for example, delineates what he calls “non-alternative alternatives” to incarceration, a category that, for him, encompasses such community-based initiatives as drug courts, day reporting centers, and electronic monitoring schemes. He considers these non-alternative alternatives to be a form of “repackaging” mass incarceration and suggests that, however well-intentioned they might be and however much they purport to change existing penal practices, they ultimately serve to perpetuate the culture of punishment. Such programs constitute “non-alternatives” because, as he puts it, they “typically involve heavy monitoring of a person’s behavior including frequent drug testing, limitations on movement and association, [and] a whole range of involuntary but supposedly therapeutic programs of dubious value and very little margin of error to avoid reincarceration” (Kilgore 2014a). Given where these programs tend to be located and who they are targeted at, their aggregate effect is often to reinforce, rather than mitigate, punitive state intervention in the lives of poor black and brown urban residents. Their effect may also be to ameliorate investment anxieties and calm would-be property buyers whose fears of crime and racialized poverty serve as some of the final remaining challenges to full-bore gentrification and the exploitation of real-estate profits in Brooklyn’s central core.
While much of Detroit’s downtown real-estate conquest is underwritten by an individual billionaire, his private security forces in tandem with local police, and neocolonial narratives of vacated land free for the plunder, the discourse accompanying very similar efforts in Brooklyn can be seen as accommodating, even appropriating, growing criticism of the NYPD and the criminal-justice system more broadly. At stake in both instances is the reproduction and proliferation of carceral state power in the lives and neighborhoods of, in particular, poor and working-class communities of color. Simply relocating new forms of state intervention out of the prison and into the community, then, does not in itself mark a transformation of the carceral system, its dominant logics, its harms, and its productions of disposable life; indeed, it might even reproduce and reinforce a remade carceral state via the material of its own critique.
Kilgore’s criticism of community-based initiatives finds resonance with the forewarning offered almost four decades previous by the scholar Stanley Cohen in his essay “The Punitive City: Notes on the Dispersal of Social Control” (1979). Writing from another period in which the legitimacy of the prison system seemed to be waning and calls for alternatives to incarceration had reached seemingly hegemonic status, Cohen surveyed such alternatives in order to problematize the ideology of community control itself:
The major results of the new movements towards “community” and “diversion” have been to increase rather than decrease the amount of intervention directed at many groups of deviants in the system and, probably, to increase rather than decrease the total number who get into the system in the first place. In other words: “alternatives” become not alternatives at all but new programs which supplement the existing system or else expand it by attracting new populations. (347)
Foucault’s 1977 genealogy of the prison system, Discipline and Punish, similarly reminds us that the circulation and dispersion of penal tactics is not new. Well before the period known as mass incarceration in the United States, Foucault described how massive, institutionalized sites of discipline “are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted” (1977, 113). The imperatives and capacities of the neoliberal era only intensify such flexibilization of carceral forms. This means that strategies forged in a particular era or set of places, like broken-windows policing, might be resuscitated to fit new spatial and political conjunctures, as witnessed today in Detroit. Or it might mean the invention of new policies and tactics to resolve emergent crises and contradictions, such as the legitimacy crisis of mass incarceration or the state fiscal crisis of 2008. The question to ask of these initiatives is not how they purport themselves discursively, but what relations of power they serve to either augment or reproduce, and thus what they portend materially for the lives of those subject to them. In the cases of both Detroit and New York, the imperatives of private property and profit margins of urban real estate underwrite much of the state intervention in low-income neighborhoods of color, continuing and extending carceral power and police violence in the lives of the urban poor.
Over the neoliberal period, the city has figured as a key site for experiments in new strategies for capital accumulation, one consequence of which has been the rise of the urban real-estate economy and attendant processes of gentrification and intensified urban policing. Insofar as such restructurings have deepened rather than abated, the lasting effect of alternatives-to-incarceration initiatives forged under the fiscal logics and imperatives of neoliberal prison reform—and organized under the sign of real estate—will be only the blurring of the borders between the space of the city and the space of the prison. They do so by extending the power and influence of the carceral system into neighborhoods, further absorbing the family, the school, and various community agencies into the carceral work of responsibilization, individuation, dispossession, economic abandonment, and social control.
Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, notes that, almost a decade after its introduction, “most of the justice reinvestment movement has focused on shifting resources within the criminal justice system, particularly reducing prison funding while increasing resources for community-based supervision and services” (2011, 36; italics added). Indeed, much of the prison savings afforded under the mantle of the JRI have been simply reallocated to other, often noncustodial departments of the criminal-justice system. These include, on the one hand, increased investment in law enforcement and policing infrastructure, but also increased spending on reentry programming and other facets of postcustodial state supervision. As prison-reform advocates James Austin and Eric Cadora and their coauthors have noted, with some disappointment, “among many lawmakers, the ‘justice reinvestment’ label has come to stand for any correctional reform effort that is expected to save states money and improve public safety, but without concomitant reinvestment in community and, it turns out, without significantly reducing correctional populations” (Austin, Cadora, et al. 2013, 4).
We continue to see a neoliberal approach to state formation for which the prison system has for many decades now served as its epicenter. My suggestion is that the prison may prove to be neither the only, nor even the most necessary, penal space through which neoliberalism, racial capitalism, and the carceral state reinforce each other. The urban landscape and neoliberal transformations therein constitute a significant site for the transformation, adaptation, and contestation of state carceral power, but they also suggest to us the importance of the city itself as a critical focus of abolitionist struggle. As Neil Smith noted about Manhattan in the 1980s: “The new urban frontier is a frontier of profitability. Whatever else is revitalized, the profit rate in gentrifying neighborhoods is revitalized” (1996, 22). Insofar as the prison is an expression of the property relation and its centrality to contemporary urban economies, its dismantling will require no less than a transformation of the structures of profitability that currently organize urban space. Antigentrification campaigns can also thus be considered abolitionist projects, insofar as they simultaneously contest the rule of real estate, the law of private property, and the power of police in the determination of who gets to live where, and under what conditions.