Judge Burton Roberts, Administrative Judge for the Bronx Supreme Court, is worried. Over the summer, the city centralized a major piece of its alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) system, which releases criminals from detention centers to the supervision of nonprofit programs. For nearly two decades, court representatives employed by the ATI programs have discussed individual cases directly with judges, sharing insight, building trust and designing individualized rehabilitation plans. Since the beginning of July, however, a new central office, the Central Court Screening Service, has taken charge of picking and choosing who will get an opportunity to take part in the alternative programs and who will go to prison.
“In a certain sense, [the old system] was better,” Roberts states carefully. “We were able to deal with the court reps, impose on the individuals certain restrictions. That is eliminated now.” He adds that without these individual relationships, he has grown more wary of the system.
Even the centralized system’s biggest proponents concede that the change-over has stumbled out of the blocks. At least in the short tern, it has also cost taxpayers millions of dollars and deprived hundreds of offenders a second chance.
ATIs are designed to work with men and women who have been convicted of either felonies or misdemeanors–but whose profile suggests are willing to work toward a constructive life on the outside. Some programs put participants to work in community service jobs, others serve up intensive treatment programs to drug abusers. One works with battered-but-violent women, another places juveniles in structured learning environments. The agency with the heaviest ATI caseload, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), had 2,600 participants last year in two separate ATI programs.
ATIs both free up prison space for more violent criminals and save tax dollars: The programs typically cost less than $10,000 per year per participant, while a year in prison can cost $50,000 and up. It’s not just about money, though. CASES estimates that young people sentenced to ATIs have a recidivism rate as little as one-half that of their peers incarcerated in state facilities (see Cell’s Angels, City Limits, February 1997).
As Roberts and other judges describe the system, ATIs have been a tremendous tool that gives judges the flexibility to mete out tough sanctions while also promoting successful rehabilitation strategies. But the programs have to be completely reliable–and their close interaction with the courts made them that much more trustworthy to judges who have no desire to let an offender off with an easy sentence.
Since 1982, both the city and the state have funded most ATIs, which relied on their informal relationships with judges to build a caseload of participants appropriate for each program. “I think trust has been very important, especially as the severity of the defendants’ crimes goes up,” says Bail Lubow, who oversaw ATI programs for the state of New York from 1984 to 1991 and now is a senior associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“There are ATI systems in lots of places, but what makes New York’s unique is that it was created outside of the system… and so its base in nonprofit agencies and among advocates introduced new approaches,” Lubow says. “The more structure you introduce, the more bureaucratic it becomes, the more you lose what was innovative. In this drive to do new things, it’s too early to tell if the differences will produce that kind of change.”
Of course, squelching innovation isn’t the stated goal of the new system. “The ATI programs each had a court rep and did screening for clients, and we thought it would be more efficient if those functions were centralized,” explains Martin H. Becker of the city’s Criminal Justice Coordinator’s Office, which oversees ATI programs and their funding. “Also, it seemed that the new system would give us more oversight on getting information on what was happening, and the information could be reported in more standard ways.”
Last September, the coordinator’s office announced it was seeking an outside agency to take responsibility for interacting with judges and determining which criminals were best suited for Ails. Only one agency sent in a proposal–the Criminal Justice Agency, an offshoot of the respected Vera Institute, whose 1992 “Jail Population Management Consultancy Report” argued for the creation of just such a structure. The CJA was, accordingly, awarded the contract to start up the Central Court Screening Service. It will also be crunching data reflecting recidivism rates and other measurements of suc-cess or failure–data heretofore available only from the individual nonprofits.
The city then required each of the ATI programs to apply for new contracts–organized by separate classes of criminal, the number in each category determined by a quota system. “The city had notions that certain defendants being incarcerated could benefit from alternative programs, and the attempt is being made to target these more,” Becker says. The new system increases the emphasis on persistent misdemeanor and non-violent drug offenders: CASES is slated to nearly double its caseload of such offenders, from 1,600 to 3,000.
On July 1, 1997, the new system went into effect. The six agencies running ATI programs with the new screening service are now supposed to work with a total of 4,200 participants each year, roughly the same number from before the change. By and large, the ATI community accepts that the system is a genuine attempt to promote efficiency. “It’s too young to really criticize; we need to give it a chance to work,” says Ken Bloomfield, the senior director in charge of two ATI programs run by the Fortune Society, both funded by Becker’s office.
But Bloomfield and other program directors admit they are disappointed with losing their court reps. In effect, judges are now being asked to release criminals from detention into the hands of agencies with which they no longer have any direct contact. It isn’t necessarily a tempting proposition for judges wary of being labeled “soft on crime.”
Joel Copperman, executive director of CASES, agrees that the new court rep system poses problems. “We had a greater presence in the courts than any of the other programs, and I believe that we to a greater extent defined our work around the Court piece,” he says. “CASES is concerned about the attenuation of the relationships between the program and the courts, and whether judges will have the same confidence in programs that they don’t have regular ongoing contact with.”
But even more significant problems have arisen during the system’s launch. “We anticipated using a computerized targeting system. We were not in a position [on July 1] to make that computer targeting system work,” acknowledges Executive Director Jerome McElroy of the Criminal Justice Agency. Nor was the organization ready to send its full force of 42 court reps into the field; by July, only 31 had been hired, and, of these, ten had no previous experience as court reps (the others were hired from existing ATI programs). At press time, the agency planned to hire the remaining reps in November and was working on “incremental” progress on its computer system, which uses a new set of data to help determine what sorts of offenders are most likely to benefit from an ATI program.
But the delays mean judges are placing far fewer offenders in ATI programs. According to the new quotas, CASES’s Community Employment Project should have had approximately 250 referrals each month since July. In fact, it has had an average of only 45, only one-third the pace of intakes one year ago–and well below the new goal. What’s more, CASES’s felony caseload in state Supreme Court is supposed to be 25 a month–but it has been averaging just over 12. The Youth Advocacy Program, run by the Center for Community Alternatives, is supposed to receive 130 juvenile offenders each year, or just over 10 per month. Yet in August, according to Executive Director Marsha Weissman, only three people were admitted into YAP.
“I don’t have current and reliable figures,” McElroy concedes. “But I am sure we are not identifying and referring cases at the kind of numbers we would hope to be referring in the next couple of months.” He argues it was inevitable that it would take time to smooth out the wrinkles after implementing changes on this scale.
Until the quotas are met, however, potential participants are being sent to prison, at up to five times the cost to the taxpayer. As a conservative estimate, the drop in caseload at just one of CASES’s programs translates into a loss to the taxpayer of at least $3.6 million. And that doesn’t take into account the long-term costs of more offenders returning to prison as recidivism rates increase.
Clearly the new ATI system needs to get up to speed, and soon. The players in this saga hope that in the long run, these problems will be overcome. But, as Judge Roberts points out, it is possible that even then judges will be less keen to place defendants into the alternative-to-incarceration programs. “Unless,” he says somberly, “McElroy is able to restore confidence.”
Sasha Abramsky is a Manhattan-based freelance writer