Since the fall of 2018, New York University’s Terrence Coffie has taught Forensic Justice, the critical study of looking at how our justice system has evolved, in Problem Solving Courts. Professor Coffie allowed me to come into his class room to speak directly to his students and hear what future leaders are seeking to do with what they get from this innovative program.
This is not your average college class and Coffie is not your average professor. Coffie is part of NYU’s Silver School of Social Work where he teaches on social justice issues based on his education and his background of being formerly incarcerated. Coffie’s academic career started by his earning a GED at Marion Correctional Institution then what followed has been nothing short of amazing … a standout student during his years at NYU Silver … receiving honors including the NYU President’s Service Award … recipient of School’s Excellence in Leadership Award … recipient of the National Association of Social Workers, New York City Chapter’s Alex Rosen Student of the Year Award. If you want a teacher who has walked the walk, this is that guy.
Coffie speaks from the heart as much as the mind. His students, future leaders in social work and criminal justice, get a first hand view of the task in front of them to change things. So I had the opportunity to step, virtually, into the classroom to ask these aspiring students what the future holds for criminal justice.
Problem-solving courts differ from traditional criminal courts in that they are led by a judge (or parole authority) who works with offenders on a path to rehabilitation without using incarceration. The goals of such programs are to expedite case processing and reduce caseload of the courts and 2) provide therapeutic and interdisciplinary solutions for defendants that address addiction and other underlying issues without jeopardizing public safety. Coffie told me, “Classes like this are not about just locking people up, but about solving their problems so they can become productive citizens. We ask our students to think out of the box.”
One student, Caroline Kaplan, works in New York in a maximum security forensic hospital where many defendants are treated prior to facing the consequences that await them in the courtroom. Kaplan told me, “these people had a difficult time functioning in society already and now they have a felony. It is just a terrible cycle these people will be caught in for years.”
Kaylee Bayer, who knew little of America’s criminal justice system, said that the class has been eye opening and that more people need to know what is happening in our justice system. Bayer said, “In other countries, people, even those who are incarcerated are treated like people. I understand that punishment may mean a loss of freedom, but it shouldn’t mean a loss of their humanity.”
Genevieve Alexis’ concerns were about the blatant racism that dominates incarceration across the country. “Racism has been a part of our history and it shows in who we incarcerate. We need interventions that have shown work in preventing people from returning to prison and that is education and housing.”
Nicoletta Yuelys’ told me that that there needs to be more focus on mental health resources in prison. She said, “Solitary confinement is not an answer. These people need help and if they don’t get it in prison they are just going to bring those problems back to the streets.”
Sydney VanDyke gave a unique perspective that drug issues are mental issues. “People,” she said, “need resources to lean on to control their dependency issues and if we can accomplish that then we can hit a bigger issue, expungement of their past crimes that were caused more by addiction and allow people to move on with life.”
The criminal justice system in the United States is in its sorry state not because one side was right and another was wrong, but because one side won the debate on their vision of criminal justice. One can only hope that the voices of these young professionals will rise to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
I gave Coffie the last word, “These students are amazing and none of this would be possible without the guidance and support of Dr. Aminda Heckman, Coordinator, Rockland County Campus, NYU. She has been an inspiration in encouraging hard conversations, and challenging systemic issues such as these that better prepare our students to become agents of change who have the insight and intellectual skill set to effectuate change.”
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