Can the Arts Help Reduce Parolees from Going Back to Jail?

Why did the head of New York City's Department of Probation recently praise an arts grant that she thinks will make her job easier? We'll get to that question, but first some background. 

In 2011, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened the first Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn as part of his Young Men’s Initiative, he and Department of Probation (DOP) Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi hoped that by connecting people on parole with community-based initiatives, opportunities and resources, the network would effectively curb the number of people trapped in a criminal justice cycle.  

Fast forward three years, and the program has grown from one neighborhood to seven—Brownsville, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, East New York, South Jamaica, Northern Staten Island, and the South Bronx—and continues to gain financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Open Society Foundations, the city’s Department of Probation, and the New York Community Trust. The award-winning initiative has also reduced the number of re-arrests among participants by 23 percent.  

So does the program work? Well, it’s simple and not at the same time. Currently the DOP supervises just over 25,000 people, the majority of whom are black and Latino males. In many cases, these men are between the ages 16 and 24 and come from some of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods around New York City. NeON staff and offices are in these neighborhoods connecting these young people, most of whom lack high school diplomas, with literacy programs, work and employment preparation, health care, academic and technical education, afterschool activities and mentoring.

And it’s not just about the individuals on probation. The foundations backing the initiative, as well as the NeON staff and clients, work with local residents on development projects to address pressing neighborhood needs to encourage active citizenship. It's truly a win-win.

And it gets better.

Just recently the New York Community Trust announced NeON Arts, a collaboration with Carnegie Hall to connect aspiring musicians with technologies they otherwise might not have access to. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the New York Community Trust, Carnegie Hall’s Weil Music Institute has already kicked-off NeON Arts programming in all of the NeON communities: Bedford-Stuyvesant: The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions and Xmental; Brownsville: Young New Yorkers; East New York: ARTs East New York;  Harlem: Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Voices UnBroken; South Bronx: Free Verse, Music Beyond Measure, and Voices UnBroken; South Jamaica: Life Light Street Productions; Staten Island: The Animation Project.

Through the NeON Arts, local artists and community members collaborate on various projects including dance, music, visual art, poetry and digital media.

 “I am very excited about NeON Arts because there is no question that the arts can transform lives, particularly the lives of people who have faced life challenges. Through NeON Arts, our clients will be able to find a public voice and develop an important new identity—that of artist and creator,” says Ana Bermudez, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation.

The next round of applications for NeON Arts programming will open on July 15. For information about applying for NeON Arts funding, click here. Click here to find addresses for all NeON locations.