Queens DA offers unique diversion program based at Rockaway Community Justice Center

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz (Photo by Mark Hallum)

In an effort to combat low-level crime across the borough, Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz announced that her office has entered into a formal agreement with Queens Defenders for the launch of a new diversion program based at the Rockaway Community Justice Center.

Under the program, eligible defendants accused of low-level crimes are referred to this locally based diversion program and receive specialized intervention within their own community.

“We are happy to be working with Queens Defenders on this important initiative in the Far Rockaway community,” Katz said. “This diversion program can make a big difference for people charged with low-level offenses. Successfully completing the program provides a great opportunity for individuals to turn things around and be given a clean slate.”

Individuals ages 18 to 24 accused of a variety of misdemeanor charges such as criminal trespass, criminal mischief, making graffiti, petit larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, and a few other crimes, are eligible for the program, which provides the opportunity to have their cases considered before peer- and community-led panels.

This localized, court-structured program is run by community leaders, including the heads of churches and houses of worship, neighborhood organizations and business leaders. The goal is to use restorative justice strategies to address the needs of the accused, the victims and the community.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with District Attorney Melinda Katz and her office to bring this innovative court-alternative to the Far Rockaway community,” Queens Defenders Executive Director Lori Zeno said. “The Rockaway Community Justice Center will offer residents a chance to end the cycle of criminal justice involvement at a crucial early stage, develop skills and social capital and begin a new path toward a fulfilling and productive life. We are proud to be a leading part of such a game-changing solution to local crime in an area of Queens that is too often overlooked and regularly abandoned by community partners.”

Katz added that program participants can avoid leaving their community to come to the Courthouse in Kew Gardens, which can be a hardship for those with young children, caring for elderly family members, having employment commitments, or simply lacking transportation. This is also a unique chance to get a fresh start by working within their community and gaining valuable skills along the way. Participants are held accountable and work collaboratively with stakeholders and local police to build relationships and reestablish trust, using remedies designed to develop the offender’s career skills. One of the goals is to help young, low-level offenders become more employable for the future, which ultimately empowers them to give back to their community.

“A low-level offense should not equal a life sentence for our young people. Unfortunately, that’s what happened too often in communities of color in the Rockaways, with young people locked out of employment, housing, job opportunities,” Councilman Donovan Richards said. “This Community Justice Center provides a second chance at life with guidance and mentorship. Congratulations to DA Katz and Queens Defenders on their collaboration. I can’t wait to continue working together to ensure this program is a huge success.”

Queens Defenders provides the training and guidance to the community and conducts ongoing professional development to ensure compliance with known best practices and the evolving criminal justice reforms in New York. The Justice Center, located at 19-22 Mott Ave. in Far Rockaway, also offers a variety of other services, including housing mediation, job training and other career readiness workshops.

Other partners for this initiative include the Rockaway Development and Revitalization Corporation, Queens Public Library and the Queens Family Justice Center. Far Rockaway residents will also have access to legal, housing and immigration services, domestic violence support services through the city’s Domestic Violence & Empowerment initiative emergency food assistance, a professional clothing bank, access to social workers who will offer referrals and support, and other services.

Upon successful completion of the community-based intervention program, the DA’s Office will either decline to prosecute or dismiss the pending case. The defendant’s case then becomes sealed and therefore not part of his or her record.

More information on the Rockaway Community Justice Center can be found at rockawaycjc.org or by calling 833-COMMRCT (266-6278).