The Big Idea: Prison Break

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When Todd Clear and Eric Cadora talk about New York’s million-dollar blocks, they are not referring to the townhouses on Park Avenue or the penthouses on Sutton Place. Far from it. They mean streets in places like Brownsville and East New York, with high unemployment, high rates of substance abuse and shocking numbers of residents behind bars. Taxpayers are shelling out millions of dollars a year to keep criminals in neighborhoods like these off the streets.

Cadora, a program officer at the Open Society Institute, has mapped incarceration rates, and expenditures on them, in cities across the country. What he’s found, he says, is a lot of waste. “You’re really concentrating a lot of resources on removing and returning people each year,” he explains. “Putting aside all the questions of punishment, you have to ask yourself: What is the return on the investment?”

Using data obtained directly from criminal justice agencies, Cadora calculates how much cities are spending to incarcerate people from specific blocks. He looks at the addresses of those incarcerated, the lengths of their sentences and types of institutions they’re housed in, then figures the per diem costs for taxpayers.

“People who live on Park Avenue give a lot of money to people who live in places like Auburn, New York, to watch people who live in Brooklyn for a couple of years–and send them back worse,” says Clear, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Using Cadora’s maps as the impetus, Clear proposes an alternative: “Take the money from Park Avenue and give it directly to the people in Brooklyn, so they can start to attack the problems that are generating this large demand for the money.”

Politically, Clear’s idea sounds as radical as it does straightforward. He’d divert the funds already earmarked for prisoners from neighborhoods with high incarceration rates into community development programs. He envisions the funds being used for everything from pre-K education and teen programs to substance abuse treatment centers and job training. “We’re already willing to spend a ton of dough on those places,” Clear argues. “What we’re not willing to do is let those places have any say over what that dough gets used for.”

No one, including Clear and Cadora, has offered concrete ideas about how to make this sort of transition in New York City neighborhoods. But in states from Oregon to Connecticut, local governments are already working with state corrections officials to do just the sort of thing the two academics are proposing.

“Crime rates are the lowest they have been in years,” explains Jeremy Travis, senior fellow in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. “And the state fiscal crisis is real.” These dual realities have primed states for criminal justice innovations.

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In the early 1990s, Ohio, like many other states, faced an enormous upsurge in the number of juveniles being put into detention. “Even if we had all the resources we needed, we couldn’t build quickly enough. If we kept sending kids away, we weren’t going to have any place to put them,” recalls Ann Liotta, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. The state also realized that it was not necessarily helping matters by sending a 15-year-old who stole his grandmother’s car to secure detention.

So the legislature created Reclaim Ohio. The program takes state money that would have been used to incarcerate juveniles, and redistributes it to counties to handle juvenile offenders at a local level. Each county receives funds quarterly–the amount is based on the county’s average number of adjudications and a per diem rate for incarcerating kids.

Some of the money is disbursed as cash, to be used for alternatives to incarceration. The other part is provided as a fund of credits to be used for kids who a judge decides need to be sent away. When a judge puts a kid in detention, the counties are charged a certain number of credits for that kid each year, depleting the fund. Any credits left over at the end of the year can be traded in for more cash funds, much the way an employee may turn in unused vacation days for money.

The credit system offers an incentive to deal with low-end offenders in the community, the program’s ultimate goal. And the county can also use the money to create larger programs, say to handle an upsurge in drug use.

In 1992, Ohio had some 2,600 juveniles in state custody. Today, there are about 1,800. And, says Liotta, those who end up in detention have committed much more serious offenses than those who were in before. She says that the program has been so successful that some legislators are discussing the possibility of extending it to include adult offenders.

Illinois recently started a similar program, called Redeploy Illinois. Other states are following suit. Liotta estimates that representatives from at least 10 states, including New Jersey, have come to Ohio to look at the program.

Deschutes County, in central Oregon, also uses state prison funds at a local level. In 1996, the county signed a contract with the state that allows it to keep juvenile offenders in their communities. The state gave Deschutes County the money it would have spent on each youth–$50,000 a year. The county uses that money to fund programs for handling kids who would have been incarcerated; anything left over goes to prevention programs. They live in a local residential facility while receiving counseling, getting schooling or job training, and performing community service. If Deschutes County decides to send a juvenile to the state facilities, it has to help pay the bill.

“The greatest success relates to the fact that we have had a 75 percent decrease in kids being sent to institutions,” says Jenny Scanlan, director of Deschutes County Juvenile Community Justice. Recidivism rates are comparable to those statewide, and, says Scanlan, “the kids are better connected to their communities, performing more work-service hours, and completing restitution sooner.”

But Connecticut may be the state that has come closest to putting Clear’s ideas into practice. The state has one of the country’s highest incarceration rates, as well as one of the greatest geographic imbalances in criminal convictions. When a recent study–commissioned by the state and performed by the Council of State Governments–showed that almost half of Connecticut’s inmates are from a few neighborhoods in New Haven, Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Britain, the state decided it was time to make some serious changes. The criminal justice funds in the state budget approved late last summer include $7.5 million for the next two years to fund community programs in low-income neighborhoods. The new programs will hopefully allow the state to raise its parole rates (among the lowest in the country) and help reduce recidivism.

Of course, places like Oregon and Ohio are a far cry from the urban complexities of New York City. And it is likely an easier prospect to offer alternatives like these to low-grade juvenile delinquents than to hardened adult criminals. But what Todd Clear is really after is the concept: “What I’m interested in is: How would you instrumentally create a competitor to the current criminal justice system’s agenda in these neighborhoods?”

Alisa Roth is a New York-based freelance writer.