CityLaw Profile – Probation Commissioner Ana Bermudez and Innovation in Government

Department of Probation Commissioner Ana Bermudez. Image credit: NYC Department of Probation

Department of Probation Commissioner Ana Bermudez. Image credit: NYC Department of Probation

Ana Bermudez was named DOP Commissioner in April 2014. Born in the Guaynabo suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Bermudez grew up with her mother’s commitment to social justice and a belief that humans have a responsibility to care for each other. Bermudez left Puerto Rico in 1982 to attend college at Brown University and later Yale Law School. Originally intending to become a hospital administrator, Bermudez quickly found a passion for trial work through Yale’s public interest clinics, specifically representing children and teenagers in family court.

After graduating Yale in 1992, Bermudez first worked for the Legal Aid Society, but felt “something was missing for me” with the legal process as it was. An open position at the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services finding an alternative to family court for juveniles proved to be the missing piece for Bermudez. “A lawyer by profession but a teacher by vocation” in her words, Bermudez worked at CASES for ten years before moving on to Children’s Aid Society, eventually joining the Department of Probation as Deputy Commissioner for Juvenile Operations in 2010.

Bermudez, on coming to Probation, sought to make the department’s work more holistic. She rejected the idea that Probation had to be either entirely social work or law enforcement, and instead advocated that the department could be both at once. Bermudez said she wanted to introduce an intervention process in place of the existing compliance model, which only takes effect after someone has engaged in harmful behavior rather than preempting the behavior to begin with. “The concept I want to bring is not to put form over substance. Yes we have to enforce rules, but we must do it while recognizing the humanity of who we’re working with,” says Bermudez. She admits this runs counter to current standards where people believe “accountability” is synonymous with “punishment” and are reluctant to appear ineffective, but says “I want to pursue accountability within the actual meaning, which is ‘having to answer about your choices to someone with whom you have an actual relationship’.”

In keeping with this, the Department under Bermudez is piloting a new probation model for adolescents and young adults based upon new research in developmental psychology and an analysis of current trends among probation clients of this age. According to Bermudez, probationers in this age bracket – typically sixteen to twenty-four – account for the larger numbers of re-arrests though not necessarily with an increasing severity in crime committed. Yet, people in this age range are still maturing emotionally and are not as predictable as people who have finished growing. Bermudez argues the new model will use this knowledge to tailor the Department’s approach to the client’s behavior rather than excusing it

Bermudez admits to encountering impatience with both new approaches and a lack of results, common even in her previous positions. “Half the time, anyone making a change in their life takes one step forward, three steps back. Systems don’t have the patience for that.” Bermudez admits impatience can work for the good when it puts fire under people when needed, but it also carries the danger of those people wanting to abandon programs when they don’t show results quickly enough. Bermudez argues it takes about three years to properly determine whether a program is effective or not, which runs against political realities in that elected officials serve four-year terms. Programs which just begin to yield results are often cancelled under new administrations. “Every time I propose a new idea, I hear ‘Seven years ago, we proposed that, we did it for X amount of time, then the funding changed’ or ‘then a new administration came in’.” Another challenge Bermudez described is the higher amount of discipline needed to complete an objective than she had previously experienced, stating government agencies have a high level of reactivity to media reports and even actions of other agencies that may only tangentially impact what another agency does.

When out of the office, Bermudez likes to go running or bike riding, but not as often as she used to. She more frequently prefers to cook and spend time with her wife Jackie Dean, her thirteen-year-old son Max and sixteen-year-old daughter Jessie.

By:  Michael Twomey (Michael is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2014).

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