On Tuesday March 7th, 2022 Queens Defenders Executive Director Lori Zeno joined the Queens Borough Board Budget Hearing to comment on the Mayor’s Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Expense and Capital Budget. Specifically, Ms. Zeno is pushing back on the mayor’s proposal that sets systems in place to increase the policing of young people without adding support for year-round programming to provide safe spaces off the streets.


Ms. Zeno’s full testimony can be read below:

“Good morning.  My name is Lori Zeno, Executive Director of Queens Defenders.  We are a legal services organization representing over 20,000 Queens residents annually in Queens Criminal Court.  We also operate youth programs in Far Rockaway and Jamaica that reach over 200 young people each year through mentoring and youth development programs, our Youth Justice Court, the Rockaway Community Justice Center, and other initiatives.


Mayor Adams’ Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Budget presents a mixed bag of welcome initiatives and serious concerns for our borough’s communities, and our youth in particular.  The addition of increased Summer Youth Employment slots will be a boon to youth across the City this summer, but the mayor’s renewed focus on strategies that will lead to over policing have the potential to increase obstacles for youth residing in Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by policies rooted in systemic racism. I implore the mayor to instead focus on strategies that can uplift our city’s youth from a strengths-based perspective and provide options they can access year-round.


Summer Youth employment is a crucial program that helps youth gain valuable work experience, make connections, and earn some money when they are not in school.  I would like to see additional investment in our youth outside of this impactful, but time-limited program.


Young people need safe spaces to go afterschool.  They need engaging programs that give them new perspectives and help them envision a successful future.  They need to learn about possible career pathways, how to set goals, and how to achieve them.  They need to socialize, experience the benefits of a relationship with a caring adult mentor, and learn how to navigate life’s challenges under the guidance of a robust support network.  They need to feel connected to a community.  There are many community-based organizations that do exactly this, but access to high-quality services and options for youth is not equal across the city, or across the borough.


Take Far Rockaway for example.  Far Rockaway is a vibrant community filled with dynamic and aspirational youth.  And the peninsula can feel cut-off from the rest of the city and youth lack many after school recreational opportunities.  They do not have the same opportunities as their more affluent peers for after-school and weekend employment, skill-building, and mentorship. Their schools maintain some of the lowest graduation rates across the city. And this is one of Mayor Adams’ identified high-crime neighborhoods that will be targeted with extra policing.


What kind of improvements would we see if we targeted communities such as Far Rockaway with wholistic investment in the youth who reside there?


At Queens Defenders, we like to say that we are in the business of transforming lives. Our Youth programs offer year-round paid internships where young people gain valuable work experience, learn a community-service mindset, and think about their dream careers and how they might pursue them.  Our programs have been wildly successful since their establishment in 2013 – their founding made possible with the support of then Councilmember, and now Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.  We have helped court-involved youth set new pathways for their lives and avoid further contact with the justice system.  We have enabled youth with aspirations for legal careers learn about the law, court proceedings, and the roles of defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and other court-roles while simultaneously offering a restorative-justice based solution to issues in their schools and communities through our Youth Justice Court program.


Our young people have become well known in the communities in which they work not for a reputation as a troublemaker or due to frequent interaction with the police, but because they are a trusted resource for their peers and even adults looking for help with legal, immigration, housing, or other issues.  Our youth have fostered strong relationships with local police and worked with them to create community events that promote healthy relationships, knowing your rights, and how to interact with police should you be stopped or questioned.  They assist in our Food Pantry and design special events around the holidays for local families and families impacted by domestic violence.  They do this year-round, and this investment in youth has contributed greatly to their success and development.


Mayor’s Adams’ proposed solution of additional policing of communities and young people skips over a crucial step that can make a transformative difference in the lives of youth – particularly those residing in under-resourced communities such as Far Rockaway, Jamaica, and others.  We need to make a year-round investment in them.  We need to believe in their success.  These special police units are not the answer.  They will look for crime and to make arrests.  They are not focused on local youths’ successful transition to adulthood.  We as a city can and must do better.”