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A Bronx Tale: Giants tackle criminal justice reform

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Each NFL locker room consists of as many as 63 players with different upbringings and passions, and as a result, social justice has come to the forefront in an era when athletes are involved in their communities more than ever.

That is how a group of Giants players ended up in Bronx Criminal Court on a Tuesday afternoon in late November.

Michael Thomas, Antonio Hamilton and Ronald Zamort spent their off-day with The Bronx Defenders, a public defender non-profit organization aimed at transforming how low-income people in the Bronx are represented in the justice system. The day was organized by the Vera Institute of Justice, which works closely with the government to build and improve justice systems. It was the second phase of a joint initiative between the Giants and the Vera Institute. Over the summer, players rode along with the Camden County (N.J.) Police Department, which serves as a model because of its community policing and de-escalation efforts. This day was about pre-trial justice and the bail process.

“It’s important for me to always try to give back to my community,” said Thomas, the Giants’ nominee for the 2018 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which recognizes outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field. “I’ve always been involved with my community, but ever since my involvement as a player advocate, when I started in 2016 back when I was in Miami, I always wanted to say, OK, yeah, I’m using my voice and my platform on the field, but what am I doing when I’m not in uniform, what am I doing when I’m not being a football player and in regards of us taking a knee or not?

“Giving back and trying to say, OK, if this is the system, this is the issue, this is the problem, bail, unfair sentencing, stuff like that, then how does it work? What are the issues? So doing the legwork, getting out in communities, seeing what programs, what companies are out there actually fighting and doing the legwork every single day – how can I get involved? How can I use my voice? How can I use my relationship with the Giants and the NFL to help their cause?”

If the players thought their daily in-season schedule was demanding, they quickly learned in a round-table discussion that they had nothing on The Bronx Defenders. And there is no off-season in the justice system.

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“One of the things that is happening here in New York and really is happening across the country that’s incredibly exciting is that more and more people are engaged in both taking a hard look at what is happening in the criminal justice system and also trying to partner to find ways to reform it,” said Justine Olderman, Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders. “We have been partnering with Vera for a long time and trying to figure out what are the reform efforts that we can engage in together to try to not only address individual instances of injustice in our court system, but to try to see if we can figure out what are some long-term solutions to the problems that we see. The partnership works incredibly well because as public defenders, we are on the front lines in the fight for justice. We are inside of the belly of the beast as it were and can see first-hand not only where the problems are, but also to try to work with partners like Vera to create those long-term solutions. Today, what’s incredibly exciting, I think, for us and for Vera I s to widen our net of who our partners are, to have the opportunity to show the players what our clients experience, what people in the South Bronx community are going through and the ways in which we are trying to rectify that.”

The first thing the players saw was the Vernon C. Bain Center, a jail barge known as “The Boat” holding hundreds of inmates awaiting trial.

“America’s jails are the front door of mass incarceration, but they often operate outside of public view,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of Outreach for the In Our Backyards initiative for the Vera Institute of Justice. “What’s more, the overwhelming majority of people sitting in our jails on any given day have not been convicted, and most of those people are behind bars only because they can’t pay even a low bail amount. People may languish in jail for days, months, or even years before trial—and we know that just a few days behind bars can have devastating consequences that ripple through a person’s life and entangle them more deeply in the justice system. We spent the day with Michael, Antonio and Ronald focusing on the role that jails and bail play in driving mass incarceration to illuminate the how the justice system can unfairly criminalize poverty and dehumanize people—and also to highlight both the solutions that Vera and our partners are piloting and potential policy changes on the horizon. We know that their courageous advocacy will help build an even more powerful movement for a more just America.”

That approach runs parallel to the philosophy of the Giants’ community relations department, which is “touch it, learn it, share it.”

“One of the best parts about working in the NFL and being a New York Giant, we have access that others might not have to learn about things,” Giants Director of Community & Youth Relations Ethan Medley said. “There has been a lot of talk about social justice, but I think everybody kind of feels the same way – you have the concern but you don’t necessarily feel like you’re an expert. So these players have the opportunity to go learn from experts in our immediate area about some of the different issues that are involved. Vera came across, we met them at a conference and they were just very impressive. We told them if they had time for us, we’d be some of the best partners that they could ever have. And they’ve given us the opportunity to be really like curious students and go out and experience first-hand some of the issues that are in our backyard and indirectly in our country.

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“Some people want sports to remain separate from the real world, but I do think when it comes to care and concern about your brothers or about your sisters, these guys are learning that they do have an opportunity to really gain an educated perspective and to then use your voice. For us, it’s to touch, learn and then share. It’s kind of the approach that we’ve seen that is the most powerful. And I think taking it in those steps has been exciting for the guys.”

Another step they took was up to the bench. The players sat with a judge during live arraignments at the Bronx Criminal Court and learned more about the pre-trial process, including the bond system.

“That was one of the most important parts and reasons why I wanted to come in and go along with the group,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to learn exactly the full details behind the bonding, like now I know you have the cash bonding and you also have the partial bonding. The partial bonding actually gives the defendant a better chance of getting home. Listening to [The Bronx Defenders] and the programs that they have and are pushing for to try to get in with the judges, and talking to them and seeing about getting people more of the partial bonding so people that are minorities or in the lower economic class actually have the opportunity to make it home to their families.”

“People who can’t afford those bails, they’re not getting back home to their families and that’s what’s important,” Thomas added. “And we actually got a chance to sit in a court room, got a chance to experience it and the judge that we met, she was definitely, I guess, new school in thinking. She’s more inclined to release people back to their homes and not sending someone to jail and even grant those partial bail bonds, so it’s great to see that. These are the types of things being done in our community and trying to get these people back home and reform -- that’s what Vera does, that’s what The Bronx Defenders do, and I support them.”

And they support the athletes.

“We are well aware that there is a strong history of social activism in sports, but I will say as public defenders, this is the first time that we have seen this level of engagement by people who are on the national stage,” Olderman said. “And we recognize that they are going to be able to reach places and people and hearts and minds that we’re never even going to be in the room with. To have them here in the Bronx with us is so incredibly meaningful. Not really just for us as Bronx defenders -- of course, it’s super exciting for us to have them here -- but for what it indicates about our clients and the hope for the future.”

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