By Reuven Blau - Dec 26, 2018
Troubled teens can now escape in a book as they wait for their criminal cases to be called in court.
The young defendants can choose from 200 books on a shelf in the back of the Adolescent and Young Diversion court in downtown Brooklyn.
Advocates for the youthful offenders believe the court library is the first of its kind in the nation and there’s hope to expand it statewide.
For years, court officials enforced an unofficial “no reading” policy in the courtroom, even as it often took hours for some cases to be called.
“For many young people books can be life-changing,” said Legal Aid Society lawyer Noor Ahmad. “Yet it felt like this policy was communicating the complete opposite.”
In November 2016, Ahmad got the idea after a few of her clients were kicked out of the courtroom for talking. She asked the court officers for a sidebar to speak to then-Criminal Court Justice Craig Walker.
She made a traditional legal argument: the books would give the teens something productive to do as they waited.
“Many are missing school, and this might be the only time in the day or even week they are reading,” she added. “It would reduce the level of tension between young people and law enforcement.”
Walker agreed, with two caveats: no magazines and he’d have permission to vet all the books.
But it took months for Ahmad to cut through the red tape at the Office of Court Administration to get formal permission for the bookshelf. Court officers were worried teens could use the books as weapons during a hearing.
“While this is a very basic concept, it didn't seem clear why I was looking to make a change,” she recalled. “Additionally, our clients are not perceived as deserving of what they perceived as a gift or benefit.”
Ahmad and other Legal Aid staffers spent the past two years convincing the court officials to formally approve the idea. They also reached out to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice for support.
Finally, in February, the Legal Aid Society bought a bookcase from a court-approved vendor. It was installed in the summer inside the sixth-floor courtroom at 120 Schermerhorn St.
Teens there can read the books in court and take them home if they want.
Penguin Random House has donated books to keep it stocked and it currently has more than 200 titles. The books include several titles by Ta-Nehisi Coats as well as Trevor Noah’s memoir “Born a Crime” and “Decoded” by Jay-Z.
The books “will inform, entertain, and inspire” the teens, said Penguin Random House CEO Madeline McIntosh.
For Noor, the pilot program is personal.
“I know I was always encouraged to read, if not commanded to, by both my parents and my teachers,” she said.