Social Services For Nonviolent Offenders Can Cut Recidivism


The U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance is bringing together law enforcement officials from across the U.S. for candid assessments of what’s working – and perhaps more important, what’s not – in the criminal justice system, says Government Executive magazine. Under the leadership of Domingo Herraiz, the bureau is building on a decade-long partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, a New York City-based think tank, to fix well-known failures of the judicial process, including sluggish courts, recidivism, and a significant loss of public trust. BJA started its first grass-roots problem- solving criminal justice initiative in 2005. The enterprise funded 10 demonstration projects with the goal of using coordinated, rather than piecemeal, crime-fighting techniques.

The program applies a multifaceted approach to punishment in nonviolent cases, notably in areas such as the Bronx, San Diego, and Seattle. Judges have more sentencing options for offenses such as drug possession, prostitution, and shoplifting. By combining punishment with social services, the goal is to reduce reliance on expensive and ineffective short-term jail sentences for nonviolent offenders and boost the public’s confidence in the court system. The pilot projects, while still in their infancy, already have shown success, says BJA’s Kim Ball Norris. In San Diego, in lieu of traditional court and paying a fine, offenders may participate in a facilitated dialogue with residents, police, and a registered nurse about the impact of low-level crime, and perform a day of community service. BJA says that only 1.1 percent – or four people out of 375 participants – committed offenses again after completing the program in 2007. A comparison group that year who chose the traditional court system showed a 13.3 percent recidivism rate.


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