Reforming the Justice System’s ‘Front End’

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Criminal justice reformers have been focusing on the criminal justice system’s “back end”: how to get more inmates out of the bloated U.S. prison complex.

Led by prosecutors, speakers at an alternative sentencing “summit” meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C. urged more attention on the system’s front end. They advocated wider adoption of programs already underway in several places to divert defendants out of the system to treatment and other forms of probation so that they can avoid criminal records altogether.

“We want to address people’s problems at the earliest point we can think of,” said Mark Kammerer, supervisor of “alternative prosecutions” for the Cook County, Il., State’s Attorney, the chief prosecutor in Chicago. Kammerer spoke at a conference at Georgetown Law School organized by the Aleph Institute, which helps inmates re-enter society.

Co-sponsors included many groups from different vantage points on criminal justice, including the American Bar Association, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, and Right on Crime.

Kammerer is an unusual top official of a major prosecutor’s office. He supervises 17 attorneys but he is not a lawyer himself but rather a psychotherapist. His office reviews more than 1,000 each week, mostly those involving non-violent suspects, to determine whether they should be prosecuted at all.

If they pass a “risk assessment” test, agree to accept drug treatment or other needed social services, and if the crime victim doesn’t object, they can avoid even entering the criminal justice process.

“The success rate is very high–60 percent,” Kammerer said.

Those who fail are sent to court, but the savings both to the justice system’s budget and to the individual, who avoids a criminal record, can be considerable.

A diversion program similar to Chicago’s is run by Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, whose deputy, Jeff Altenburg, described it to conferees yesterday.

A “vast majority” of people who come in contact with police are not violent criminals but those who have “made poor choices,” such as becoming addicted to drugs, Altenburg said. Milwaukee prosecutors assess suspects based on scientific risk principles and offer several levels of “pre-trial diversion.” As in Chicago, if they stay out of trouble and get treatment, they can keep their names out of a state database that could make it difficult for them to get jobs.

Of more than 500 who went through the program last year, 82 percent successfully completed it at only 2.6 percent were re-arrested, Altenburg said. Milwaukee saved paying for 14,572 days of jail incarceration as a result.

The U.S. Justice Department has announced a national “prosecutor-led diversion initiative” offering aid to prosecutors who want to start programs like those in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Another top local prosecutor, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, told the conference that “we can do better” in the criminal justice system by avoiding the use of local jails as “massive mental health wards.”

In Los Angeles, where police get 13,000 calls a year involving people with mental health problems, officers may be inclined to take disruptive people to jail rather to an emergency room, where the cops may have to spend several hours while the suspect is examined. Depositing them in jail, where they may be released only to return later in similar circumstances, can be “inefficient, ineffective and inhumane,” she said.

After judges and administrators of special courts for veterans, drug addicts, and the mentally ill told the conference of successful programs from Brooklyn to Utah, a concluding panel assessed the prospects for achieving reforms nationwide.

Polling results show that Americans favor justice reforms, said Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice. A survey commissioned by the ACLU last year found that 62 percent of people who were asked what should be done with money saved by keeping non-violent drug addicts out of prison said it should be used for things like rehabilitation, job training and public works projects, not just to lower tax rates.

However, not many people feel intensively about justice issues, the survey found. Only 36 percent said they believed in the need for urgent criminal justice changes or that the system is in crisis, Holcomb said.

Political scientist Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins University also offered a cautionary note about the prospects for reform. Teles has traced increasing support in recent years among conservatives for reform as crime rates have decreased and violence has become less of an election issue.

Still, two developments could threaten support by conservatives, he said: the homicide rise last year in many big cities, which, if it continues, could prompt many conservatives to “do nothing” about justice reform, and the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has not suggested that he joins criminal justice reformers who want to reduce prison populations.

The conference concludes today with talks by a long list of notables, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Roy Austin of President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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