Getting Justice Reform Right


In their State of the State speeches last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced sweeping criminal justice proposals that, if implemented, will save taxpayers millions of dollars and significantly reduce crime.

Christie called for mandatory treatment for all low-level drug offenders, diverting them from prison to locked residential treatment programs.

Cuomo announced a progressive reform that will transfer primary responsibility for all but the most seriously delinquent youth from the State to the City—giving those young men and women the opportunity to live closer to their families and receive the support services and resources they need to become productive, successful members of their communities.

Both of these sweeping reforms will prove to be effective in cutting down crime and downsizing prisons. But only if they are done right.

Before the New York legislature approves Cuomo's plan, it is of the utmost importance to set standards for how it will be applied in New York City. What are the goals of the services? What are the expected outcomes? What resources are available?

Those questions must be answered in the legislation to make it work. We also need a system for monitoring and tracking the dollars saved in order to make sure that money goes back into the rehabilitation services provided by the community.

For Christie's plan to deliver positive results, the New Jersey legislature needs to take into consideration that one size does not fit all. For some individuals, being locked in residential treatment programs is the best option for a successful recovery. For others, living near their families, working and using rehabilitation services in the community may work best.

New Jersey leaders must use a nuanced approach that is tailored to the needs of each individual.

The two governors should be applauded for promoting reforms that focus on rehabilitating adults and young people outside of prison. Their efforts will save lives, make our communities safer and save money.

Elected officials across the country should follow their examples and implement policies and programs that invest money in proven, effective alternatives to incarceration and reentry programs, save money, and contribute to the overall success of communities.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo said: “prison development is not economic development.”

This is a core value for The Fortune Society, where I serve as President and CEO. By providing men and women in the criminal justice system with job training, support, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment services, we are the embodiment of economic development.

Alternative To Incarceration programs (ATI) are a big part of that equation.

Supported by both sides of the legislative aisle, here in New York State they achieve considerable cost savings to the state. In New York, it costs $171 and $71 per day, respectively, to incarcerate a person in jail and prison. Last year alone, Fortune's ATI programs helped participants avoid more than 88,000 days in jail and prison, saving more than $8 million in one year.

Every dollar invested in Fortune's ATI programs saves $3 in incarceration costs.

The key question is: here are all of the savings going? From what we have seen in the prisoner reentry field, not enough is going to ATI and reentry programs, the very same programs that save the state money in the first place.

Fortune and other reentry organizations have experienced considerable cuts in funding, including the loss of millions of dollars in local and state-level legislative support. Because of these cuts, vital programs have had to make drastic cuts.

CASES has eliminated its drug treatment education and referral program serving 4,000 Brooklyn misdemeanor defendants.

The Fortune Society has closed its discharge planning and reentry program that served detainees leaving Rikers Island; The Osborne Association eliminated El Rio substance abuse treatment services for Bronx misdemeanor defendants.

In tough economic times, our elected officials should be strategically investing their limited criminal justice resources to help take proven-effective programs to scale.

Recent reforms to the state's harsh mandatory minimum drug laws and the closure of surplus prisons was a step in the right direction, but instead of reinvesting the dollars saved in expanding programs that work, since 2008, New York State in particular has experienced a steady erosion of our nationally recognized and highly effective network of ATI and reentry programs.

These programs have been critical to New York's success in simultaneously reducing crime and reducing its reliance on mass incarceration. To achieve the Cuomo's goals of reforming our criminal justice system and keeping our troubled youth out of prison, we need to strategically invest more money into the solution—ATI and reentry programs that already demonstrate long term success.

Precluding necessary funding for ATI programs will diminish their capacity to serve clients at a time of increased need and erode their ability to remain an equal partner in the state's efforts to reduce crime and recidivism.

We ask our state leaders to provide the financial support we need to achieve our shared vision and values—reducing crime, increasing public safety and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

JoAnne Page is the President and CEO of The Fortune Society, a New York City-based non-profit prisoner reentry organization. She welcomes readers comments.

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