Risco Mention-Lewis says the best way to combat recidivism is to help ex-offenders change how they view not only themselves but their communities and law enforcement.
That belief, developed over nearly two decades as a Nassau County assistant district attorney, dovetails with a new focus on "intelligence-led" tactics by the Suffolk County Police, announced earlier this year by County Executive Steve Bellone.
Bellone said yesterday that Mention-Lewis' experience was the key reason he recruited her as the department's new second in command.
"It's a great honor, one I believe I'm equipped to do," Mention-Lewis, the first African American and the first woman to hold the deputy commissioner position, said after Bellone announced her appointment Wednesday.
"I think we're going to make a great team."
Mention-Lewis, 51, a resident of Wheatley Heights, signed on with Nassau District Attorney Denis Dillon in 1993 after graduating from the University of Delaware and Hofstra Law School. The youngest of five siblings, she was raised by a single mother in the Academy Homes housing projects in Roxbury, Mass. Her mother, a telephone company employee, moved the family to a home in Cape Cod when Mention-Lewis was 11.
Mention-Lewis married her husband, Russell, in 1984, and the couple has four children.
For a period of time, she managed apartment complexes in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She recalled that the experience taught her how to navigate social service systems to help her low-income residents.
As an assistant district attorney, Mention-Lewis spent years prosecuting criminal cases. In 2007, she became chief of Youth Development and Redirection, a mentoring program. The next year she created the Council on Thought and Action, a spinoff of District Attorney Kathleen Rice's battle against drug trafficking in the Terrace-Bedell area of Hempstead.
The COTA program seeks to help ex-offenders become productive members of the community. COTA meetings occur twice a week. Members share their progress in finding work or overcoming obstacles.
The night before she was named Suffolk deputy commissioner, Mention-Lewis led a COTA meeting of nearly 40 people. In interviews, members credited her with helping them change the way they view their lives.
"Miss Lewis has had such a tremendous impact on me," said Patrick Washington, 43, of Freeport, who said he has spent half his life in jail or prison for "everything under the gun except murder." He said he is now working on his plumbing license.
"She's like a mother, a guardian and a judge all in one," he said. "She's like the Oprah of the hood."
Bellone said he wants a similar model created in Suffolk.
"Suffolk County taxpayers can't keep paying $60,000 to keep people incarcerated," said Mention-Lewis.
The ex-offenders "need to be taxpayers," she said.