Brent Cohen
MPA-PNP 2009

Legislative and Government Affairs for the New York City Department of Probation

What do you do in your current role?

As the Director of Legislative and Government Affairs for the New York City Department of Probation, I advance the agency’s priorities through legislation and inter-governmental relationships. The NYC Department of Probation helps build stronger and safer communities by supervising people on probation and fostering opportunities for them to move out of the criminal justice system through meaningful education, employment, health services, family engagement and community participation.

My responsibilities include: developing and advancing the agency’s legislative package; analyzing external legislation and recommending the agency’s response; maintaining working relationships with elected officials; and, preparing testimony for City Council hearings. I also serve as the principal contact on national, statewide, and inter-state issues.

Can you tell us about your career path?

I began my career in education – spending five years with a charter management organization in California, including two years as a teacher in South Los Angeles, and serving as a founding staff member of three charter schools. I both loved and hated teaching; I loved working with students and helping to broaden their horizons, but I hated the many policies that prevented me from addressing the numerous challenges they faced. So, I left teaching and attended Wagner to become one of the people who develop the policies.

In my second semester at Wagner, I interned at the Mayor’s Office of Operations. I then transitioned into a Summer Graduate Internship with the Commissioner’s office at the NYC Departments of Probation and Correction (at that time, there was one commissioner for both agencies). Upon completion of my internship, I was rehired and served as a Policy Analyst and Special Assistant in the Commissioner’s Office. Following the Commissioner’s retirement, I stayed with the Department of Correction and filled many of the gaps that had been created within the office during the executive transition. This was a critical time for me, as it allowed me to showcase my technical skills, institutional knowledge, and work ethic. In August of 2010, I accepted my current position and re-joined the Department of Probation.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I enjoy having ownership over a specific aspect of the agency, and being responsible and accountable for the success of our work. I enjoy working with a variety of internal and external stakeholders, and developing relationships with key members of our communities, our City, and our state. But, perhaps most of all, I enjoy working for a Commissioner who is dedicated to helping people improve their lives; it is an aspect of my job that I consider absolutely critical.

Within the criminal justice system we must help individuals while simultaneously trying to enact systemic reform. Through the legislative process, I believe I contribute to our agency’s efforts, which will ultimately improve life-outcomes for people on probation and advance public safety.

In your current role, what are some of the challenges you face and how do you overcome them?

One challenge that I think all New York City agencies share when pursuing state legislation, is that NYC is different from all other places; the size and density of our city combined with the governing structure and other factors often present the City with unique challenges and strengths.

Our task is to develop legislation that addresses the City’s challenges and capitalizes on our

strengths, without negatively impacting other localities, and to get that legislation passed by a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate.

Another challenge that is more specific to the NYC Department of Probation is that public safety can be a highly emotional and controversial issue. As we implement new and more effective strategies to help build stronger and safer communities, we must also undo approaches that haven’t proven successful. Moving away from the “status quo” in this field can be challenging, even when supported by data.

Were there any skills you gained at Wagner that have been particularly useful and relevant?

It’s perhaps the most talked about aspect of Wagner, but networking really is critical. An introduction by my Wagner advisor to a Wagner alumnus in the field has opened numerous doors for me, and has contributed greatly to my professional development.

In regards to hard skills, small things like using pivot tables have proven valuable, because they allow me to produce data in a digestible format faster and more accurately than my colleagues. Also, not previously having a research background, my statistics and policy courses at Wagner have been extremely helpful. They have helped me to analyze studies and engage in high-level content-driven discussions despite not having 20 years in the field. Participating in those content-driven discussions earned me a level of credibility with senior members of the agencies.

What are your future goals for your career?

I believe systemic reform must come from within government. To that end, I intend to continue working within government, and pursue legislative change at the highest levels, perhaps transitioning into the elected-side of government.

Any thoughts and advice for Wagner students/alumni interested in your field?

As I mentioned before, criminal justice can invoke emotion and controversy. It is important to understand the individuals and communities most impacted by criminal justice policy, and also be practical about potential solutions.More broadly, much success in government comes from learning how to work within the framework of the system. Great ideas do not become policies unless the various government waters are appropriately navigated. Part of that navigation is understanding the mission and vision of the agency, and recognizing the progress that has been made to date.

And, finally … network, network, network.