From Waiting Rooms to Resource Hubs: Designing Change at the Department of Probation

In places like Marcy there are people who know the ins and outs of government bureaucracies, police procedures, and sentencing guidelines, who spend half of their lives in dirty waiting rooms on plastic chairs waiting for someone to call their name. But for all of this involvement, the government might as well be the weather because a lot of us don’t think we have anything to do with it.” – Jay-Z, Decoded

Local governments have more than one way of enforcing law and order and providing for public safety. Incarcerating individuals convicted of crimes is of course the most familiar form of criminal justice. But alternatives do exist. One of the largest alternative-to-incarceration programs in the country is New York City’s Department of Probation (DOP), which provides services and investigations for more than 30,000 adults and 15,000 juveniles per year, and supervises approximately 24,000 adults and 2,000 juveniles on any given day. Until recently, this large population of New Yorkers — who might be turnstile jumpers, first-time offenders, or otherwise considered to be good candidates for non-incarcerated supervision — faced long commutes to DOP waiting rooms in central courthouses, where they would sit and wait, often for hours, in uninviting spaces. In many cases, the system was doing more harm than good.

All that started to change when Vincent Schiraldi became the DOP commissioner in 2010. Growing up in Greenpoint in the 1970s, he recently told the New York Law Journal, many of his friends got into trouble and spent time in local jails or juvenile detention centers. And “when they came back, two things were almost always true. They were almost always worse – more violent, more unruly. And… we always looked up to them more. We didn’t have this phrase for it back then, but they had more ‘street cred.’ Even as a kid, I knew this was wrong.” This observation has motivated a career spent honing his expertise in alternatives to incarceration, particularly among youth.

Upon arrival, Schiraldi instituted a sweeping strategic plan, setting the course for DOP to “do less harm, do more good, and do it in the community,” according to Susan Tucker, who directs Justice Reinvestment Initiatives for the agency. Justice reinvestment is a policy approach to reducing prison populations and redirecting those savings towards investment in community programs — like education or workforce development — that help to keep people out of the criminal justice system. This strategy is more commonly associated with departments of corrections rather than of probation, and with states rather than cities. But since 2010, New York City’s model of probation has followed a justice reinvestment model, re-oriented towards those communities with the highest concentrations of residents sentenced to probation.

To date, DOP has opened five Neighborhood Opportunity Networks (NeONs) in Brownsville, Jamaica, South Bronx, Staten Island and Harlem, and will open two more soon in East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant. These centers help connect individuals sentenced to probation to local opportunities, by co-locating a staffed DOP presence with community-based organizations that provide a range of social services, from housing and education support to job training, and have deep roots and knowledge in the neighborhoods they serve. Many individuals sentenced to probation are cut off from what makes their neighborhoods dynamic, Tucker says, and if DOP is going to reduce the likelihood that the citizens it supervises are re-arrested in the future, it needs to re-connect them with that dynamism, to “become more asset-based and less deficit-based.” The agency has also worked with the Department of Design and Construction’s See ChangeNYC initiative, which seeks to improve the spaces in which city services take place, to transform DOP’s waiting rooms into Resource Hubs, with brightly-colored and welcoming interiors designed by Biber Architects with graphics by James Victore. Other changes involve new technologies that improve efficiencies in the mechanics of supervision and enable differentiation between the different types of probation sentences, such as ATM-like kiosks where certain individuals can check in with their probation officer remotely, and computer programs to help find relevant information.

These changes required a profound culture shift throughout the agency. And not all these changes had to do with the quality, location, or orientation of its physical facilities. One of the simplest and yet most profound changes is a shift away from calling people in the system “probationers” or “offenders” and instead referring to them, and treating them, as “clients” of city services. Helping to re-think the entire process of probation was a task force* that included probation officers and clients from across the city, guided by a consultant team consisting of Craig Hosang, a policy analyst formerly with the Mayor’s Office of Operations, Glen Cummings, a graphic designer noted for his work on public policy issues, and Laura Kurgan, a designer whose work has been pushing at the boundaries of architecture for years. In her architecture, her teaching, and her leadership of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia, Kurgan has introduced the field to new synergies between geographic information, social justice, and public investment, in projects that have addressed challenges in public education, post-disaster rebuilding, and geographies of incarceration. In the conversation below, Kurgan shares some of the thinking behind this comprehensive effort to deepen the impact of the physical redesign of underperforming spaces by first rethinking an entire system, especially the touch-points between the public servants who provide critical city services and the citizens who stand to benefit from them. —C.S.

L: Queens Adult, 162-24 Jamaica Ave., 2010. Photo courtesy of the NYC DOP. | R: Resource Hub, 2012. Photo by David Sundberg, courtesy of Esto.
340 Adams Street, 6th Floor, before its transformation into a Resource Hub, 2011 | Photo courtesy of the NYC DOP
Resource Hub, 2012 | Photo by David Sundberg, courtesy of Esto


Urban Omnibus (UO):

In 2010, the New York City Department of Probation (DOP) released its strategic plan. How did that lead to the Waiting Room Improvement Team?

Laura Kurgan (LK):

DOP’s strategic plan came out soon after Vincent Schiraldi became the commissioner. Before he came to New York to run this agency, he had achieved an incredible amount for juveniles in the criminal justice system of Washington, D.C., where he ran the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and totally reset national standards for juvenile detention. When he came to DOP, he hired Susan Tucker, formerly of the Open Society Institute, to run the DOP’s Justice Reinvestment programs.

Justice Reinvestment is a data-driven approach to reduce spending on traditional corrections programs like incarceration and to re-direct the money saved towards place-based strategies that strengthen neighborhoods, including educational programs, job training, arts programs, etc. And the data behind justice reinvestment isn’t just financial – it’s also spatial. For example, our work on the Million Dollar Blocks Project maps how a disproportionate number of incarcerated citizens come from a very few urban neighborhoods. In some cases, the concentration of where prisoners live is so dense that states are spending more than a million dollars a year to incarcerate residents from a single city block. If more of that money were spent on communities in need rather than on building prisons upstate, it would make a big difference.

So when Commissioner Schiraldi, Susan Tucker and their colleagues at DOP were developing the strategic plan for the agency in 2010, three of their major goals were to provide people on probation with greater access to programs relevant to them as individuals, to remove some of the obstacles to success that the justice system imposes on individuals, and to return probation services to the community. Currently, most of the interface between probation officers and individuals on probation is in offices in central courthouses. Improving these offices became a priority.

Maps from the Million Dollar Blocks Project, courtesy of the Spatial Information Design Lab

With this in mind, I was approached to be part of the “Waiting Room Improvement Team,” based in part on my work on designs for small schools, as well as my work with the Justice Mapping Center on the Million Dollar Blocks Project. Lots of smart people with diverse expertise were at this first meeting, including Craig Hosang, who was with the Mayor’s Office of Operations at the time. That office has been deeply involved in the City’s current shift towards treating citizens as “customers” of city services. The introduction of “service design” concepts throughout City agencies really comes right from the top.

The first meeting of this Waiting Room Improvement Team seemed to suggest that the focus of the effort would be on physical details, like paint colors or furniture selection. In other words, the initial approach treated this as a design problem. But, to me and to Craig Hosang, the problem was much broader. We both felt that the focus of the effort should be to improve and integrate the waiting room experience into the entire process, which starts from the moment an individual is sentenced to probation.


So how would you define that problem in your own words?


The problem is complex. Most people aren’t necessarily clear on the difference between probation and incarceration. Probation is an alternative to incarceration, and yet the services surrounding probation are so inferior – the rooms you sit in, the seemingly endless waiting for a probation officer to speak with – that sometimes it feels like prison. We found that there was very little about the experience that did what it’s supposed to do, which is to give individuals sentenced to probation the feeling that they have another chance, an opportunity to change their lives and to stay out of prison.

There are all kinds of reasons that you might be sentenced to probation. Some probationers are homeless; some have committed white collar crimes; some have lost their jobs; some are addicted to drugs — and we know that people arrested for drug-addiction-related crimes come disproportionately from poorer neighborhoods. Similar to the patterns revealed during the Million Dollar Blocks Project, probationers – who are mostly young, black men – often come from specific, impoverished parts of New York City. In the existing system, they were taking long subway rides to get to the probation office, where they sat on plastic chairs – as Jay-Z points out – and stared into space for hours until their name was called. Some had to skip a day of work just to report, in person, that he or she was employed! And these central offices had no reason to know what kind of support was available in the communities their clients were coming from.

The reality of wait times is, of course, not the fault of probation officers, who understandably take the necessary time to speak with their clients, each of whom has his or her own specific circumstances to discuss. Probation officers play a significant and often under-appreciated role in their clients’ lives. There’s very little support for the officers. And besides that single, face-to-face meeting, there’s very little support for the person entering that office. Given the amount of time he or she has to spend in this office, we approached these rooms — and the time spent in them — as underutilized resources, and we tried to think of as many ideas as possible of what might be in them.

Helping a client connect to resources | Photo by David Sundberg, courtesy of Esto

So how did you go about studying the process of probation and the journey someone sentenced to probation takes through the system?


First, we did a set of exercises with a committee of probation officers and clients, people from all over the city. We asked them to describe every step of the process: the “offender” goes to a courthouse, passes through a security barrier, takes off his belt, takes an elevator… Then we asked them to describe the blockages in the process. Creating diagrams to investigate those blockages led to specific design ideas, and from there we kept on finding ways to integrate the spatial – the rooms themselves – and the procedural – what you do in them.


What were some of the most surprising discoveries for you and your colleagues during what sounds like a very iterative investigative process?


The first thing we noticed, of course, is just how dilapidated these facilities were. Another discovery was that the spatial infrastructure for this giant system was quite small. The DOP supervises something like 24,000 adults and 2,000 juveniles on any given day, and all of this was taking place in just fifteen rooms around the city. For DOP to become a positive, transformative force in the lives of that many people, the culture of the agency – not just its spatial infrastructure – had to change. Part of this culture change is reflected in the shift away from the word “probationer” to the word “client.” This is in keeping with a philosophy of the Bloomberg administration where citizens are considered “customers” of city services. We integrated that into our thinking. For example, when a probation client enters the probation room, someone would be there to welcome him or her, to ask, “What do you need today? Are you looking for a job? Are you looking for an apartment? What is the most important thing that you need right now?” Then the client would be taken to a computer to find those listings.

We also made a lot of effort to find organizations in the city that are prepared to hire people on probation. As soon as you are touched by the criminal justice system, there are a whole lot of secondary punishments, obstacles that appear on job applications or credit checks. These were the kinds of challenges that we continued to emphasize: it’s not just the design of the room; it’s the way the staff (probation officers) and the clients (individuals sentenced to probation) interact. It’s not that we need to increase government inputs or spend more money. What we need to do is to redefine a whole system, and then the staff can set their own tasks relative to that redefinition.

Suggestions of types of resource material to be made available at Resource Hubs | Image courtesy of the Waiting Room Improvement Team, NYC DOP

It sounds like one of the ways in which the parole officer’s job description is expanding includes linking people to opportunities. Can you explain what you mean by a Resource Hub?


The Resource Hubs and the NeONs aren’t exactly the same thing. There are some Resource Hubs in the NeONs, and other Resource Hubs in existing DOP facilities in courthouses and other municipal buildings. The NeONs are spaces within specific communities where DOP will have a presence alongside community-based organizations, to help make residents aware of opportunities for employment, housing, or social services.The Resource Hubs are user-friendly environments with new computer systems, re-trained probation officers, and vibrant rooms designed by James Biber of Biber Architects with graphics by James Victore, who worked with Lonni Tanner, Chief Change Officer at the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) to make these rooms inviting.

But again, we resisted offering any kind of architectural proposal for the waiting rooms until the end of the process. We held firm to the belief that “redesigning” the touch-points between probation officers and their clients had to come before the physical redesign. For example, in traditional waiting rooms, there is a receptionist whose primary responsibility has been to tell everyone waiting that their officer is running late. If there were an electronic device through which he or she could communicate with the officer behind that wall, then she’d be able to tell the client, “It will be another twenty minutes, feel free to use a computer to browse job listings.” It’s not about increasing the staff; it’s about bringing many of the staff functions out in front of that wall. It’s about retraining staff and rescripting what they say to clients, how they figure out what each client’s specific needs are on a given day, and how they direct them to appropriate resources.


As a designer, was making that kind of recommendation comfortable for you?


It was difficult, actually. Simply redesigning the room would have been a more traditional and perhaps comfortable approach. And, again, we resisted that. Our approach to this project ended up having a lot in common with service design. But, in my view, designing the physical environments and addressing the social interactions have to be integrated.

Diagramming the effectiveness of the TD Bank user experience | Image courtesy of the Waiting Room Improvement Team, NYC DOP

And you also looked at precedents for staff-client interaction from the commercial marketplace, is that right?


We did. And you might find the precedents we studied a little surprising. TD Bank is a really good example: you enter, you have the choice to use the ATM or the enter the staffed part of the bank branch, a greeter approaches you and asks what you need help with and directs you to the right person. We also looked at the Apple store, which has become the quintessence of high quality service design, from the Genius Bar to the person that greets you when you come in, to the way that everything is laid out for you to play with and you learn as you go along. The Apple store has really set a new model for retail that is trying to train people and introduce them to new technologies, and to new ways of thinking about the world through those technologies.


How did the Department of Probation react to these precedent studies?


They totally got it. They too have experienced these changes in retail, but also in other types of interactions with service providers. Con Edison and even the DMV have become a lot more user-friendly, with smaller offices distributed throughout the city and more attention paid to the experience of the customer.


Do you see this as part of a broad cultural shift in government?


I do. It’s both a cultural shift within government, a shift in the sense of what it is that needs to be changed. For an agency to change the way it interacts with citizens – as opposed to exclusively changing internal processes and policies – is a specific and important choice.

Diagramming the effectiveness of the TD Bank user experience | Image courtesy of the Waiting Room Improvement Team, NYC DOP

Waiting Room Improvement Team:

NYC Department of Probation Staff
Claudia Hinkson- Jeremiah, SPO Kings Juvenile (Co-chair)
Ralph DiFiore, Associate Commissioner Adult Operations (Co-chair)
Doreen Attanasio, Director CIU
Francine Burbridge, PO Bronx Juvenile
Steven Cacace, CORES
Brenda Davis, Branch Chief Bronx Adult
Ryan Dodge, Director of Media Relations
Mattie P. Dubose, Client (Adult)
Matthew Fischler, Urban Fellow
Cynthia Jefferson, PAA Queens Adult
Patricia Jolivin, OIT
Marc Lewis, SPO Queens Juvenile
Evangeline Lincoln, PO Queens Juvenile
Carlos Ruiz, OIT
Marc Sparrow, Community Associate Manhattan Juvenile
Dominique Stewart, SPO Manhattan Adult
Josephine Troino, PAA Staten Island Adult
Susan Tucker, Director, Justice Reinvestment Initiatives

Laura Kurgan, Director Spatial Information Design Lab, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University
Craig Hosang, Policy Analyst, Mayor’s Office of Operations
Glen Cummings, Yale University, Graphic Consultant

Laura Kurgan is Associate Professor of Architecture at Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning at Columbia University, where she is Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab (SIDL) and the Director of Visual Studies. Her work explores things ranging from digital mapping technologies to the ethics and politics of mapping, new structures of participation in design, and the visualization of urban and global data. Her recent research includes a multi-year SIDL project on “million-dollar blocks” and the urban costs of the American incarceration experiment, and a collaborative exhibition on global migration and climate change.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.