Legal Aid's Brooklyn Criminal Staff Volunteers For Project Safe Surrender

Hundreds of New Yorkers received a second chance by getting summonses and warrants dismissed last Saturday and Sunday as part of Project Safe Surrender , a community program involving the Kings County District Attorney's Office, The Legal Aid Society, the New York State Office of Court Administration and a number of churches in Bedford Stuyvesant. Lawyers, paralegals, investigators, administrative and support staff and technical support staff from the Brooklyn Criminal Office worked at Mount Sion Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant over the weekend where a courtroom was set up.

The New York Times
December 2, 2011
In a Brooklyn Church, Lining Up to Erase Legal Sins
By Liz Robbins

George Walker was sitting outside his brother’s house, drinking beer with his buddies, as he has for decades on the block of brownstones in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where he grew up.

He received a ticket for violating an open-container law.

“My mother is 76, and she’s been at her house since she was 17,” Mr. Walker, 47, said. “It’s embarrassing that you been on the block that long and you get a ticket in front of the house.”

Defiant about his right to relax with a Heineken and frustrated with what he saw as the absurdity of the law — “It’s just a chance to get money from poor people,” he said — Mr. Walker was, nonetheless, trying to be responsible even before his court date in a few weeks.

He sat in a pew of Mt. Sion Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the hundreds of offenders who came on Friday not to worship, but to erase their sins and ease their consciences. In a legally unique way. Mr. Walker waited to be called to a back room that doubled as a courtroom as part of Project Safe Surrender, a community program started last year by Charles J. Hynes, the Brooklyn district attorney, in partnership with local churches, the Legal Aid Society and the New York State Office of Court Administration. (Though churches are involved, the program has no religious affiliation.)

It gives people who have summonses for minor offenses or warrants for misdemeanor charges a chance to clear their records before a Brooklyn Criminal Court judge. The charges included public alcohol consumption (the most prevalent on Friday), littering, loitering, disorderly conduct, failure to have a dog license and spitting. But not all were so banal.

Alexis Rodriguez, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, represented a 34-year-old man who had left on his oven while he slept, starting a fire in his apartment building. He was cited for disorderly conduct for “creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose.”

Perhaps he had been baking cookies?

Because of his job, the man could not show up for his court date downtown, Ms. Rodriguez said. In church on Friday, Judge Ruth E. Smith dismissed the case.

For as humorous as some of the offenses may seem, they could, however, become quite serious. If people do not pay tickets or appear for a court summons, warrants may be issued and they could be arrested.

The district attorney’s office sent 2,500 notices to people with summonses and warrants, inviting them to the program; the rest were walk-ins, waiting in a heated tent outside the church.

The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, a community activist who helped start the program at St. Paul Community Baptist Church with Mr. Hynes, raised $25,000 for this two-day event that continues on Saturday. He said he was expecting to top last April’s record of 500 cases heard. (On Friday, 201 summonses were resolved and the district attorney’s office expected even more to be cleared on Saturday. Mr. Walker’s case was dismissed and he did not have to pay the $25 fine.)

Barry Addison, 52, the director of the Alpha School, an alternative educational institution in East New York, Brooklyn, brought about a dozen of his students to get their records cleared.

One student, Malcolm Medouze, 20, was riding his BMX bike on Malcolm X Boulevard two weeks ago. He had recently moved from St. Lucia and was a little overwhelmed by the oncoming traffic, he said. He hopped on the sidewalk, and right into police officers.

“Caught red-handed,” he said. Despite his introduction to Brooklyn’s legal system, he added, “It’s still a great experience here.”