Fortune Society court navigator program receives funding from Manhattan DA
Joey Soto remembers the moment he walked out of prison after serving 25 years for murder. He says the guards would usually tell departing inmates they would see them on their return back. His experience was different.
“When I was walking out the door, one of the sergeants came to me and he shook my hand ... and he said I’m gonna miss you because you was able to help out a lot,” Soto told News 12 New York.
Behind bars, Soto found his inner freedom by helping his fellow inmates realize their full potential. Soto now works for the Fortune Society – a nonprofit that was recently awarded $3 million by the Manhattan DA’s Office to staff Manhattan Criminal Court with court navigators. The program is voluntary and is the brainchild of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
“It’s offering services, but it’s also data driven and efficacious and smart – it's smart on crime, we’re really trying to meet people where they are so they don’t come back,” Bragg told News 12 New York. “Everyone has the objective of having less crime and of reducing recidivism – if you want to put it in a concrete way, it’s safety through fairness.”
The court navigators will connect individuals to social services and help take care of their immediate needs by providing hygiene products, for example. But Soto says the secret sauce is that these peers will have “lived experience” - meaning many of them will have previously been in the system themselves.
“It’s hard to build trust in our communities, especially when you’re living in the gutter,” he said. “Breaking those barriers of communication is fundamental and letting them know listen I’ve been there – I know what you’re going through.”
Bragg agrees. “Saying I’ve been there, I’ve been through this ... is really profound and impactful and really forms a connective tissue with people who are presenting in a number of our cases,” he said. The program is exclusive to Manhattan Criminal Court and will be up and running in early 2024.