When an analysis found that Miami-Dade County spent nearly $14 million in combined jail and health care costs in a five-year period on just 97 individuals, county authorities realized something was deeply skewed within their justice system.
In response, local police developed a new approach to what criminologists call the “frequent utilizers”—the small group of people who move between jails, emergency rooms, state hospitals, and psychiatric facilities in a never-ending cycle of despair.
Training priorities were changed, so that law enforcement sent troubled individuals to community services for counseling instead of repeatedly arresting them. As a result, the county’s jail population was cut in half from 7,000 in 2008 to about 4,700 in 2014, enabling authorities to close one jail facility, and saving some $12 million.
Such innovative strategies have become increasingly used across the U.S., as police, sheriff’s departments and courts collaborate with local healthcare providers, family counseling services, drug treatment clinics, and housing authorities to target a population that is often considered un-reformable.
But one player has been notably missing: the local prosecutor.
As the most powerful law enforcement officer in any jurisdiction, a prosecutor makes the ultimate decisions about whether and how to apply punishment—and too often, he or she bases that decision on traditional data such as an individual’s previous record.
But what if prosecutors were deeply involved from the beginning of the process, and used their authority to ensure that offenders’ personal and social circumstances—homelessness, drug addiction, poverty—were taken into account when deciding how they should be handled in the justice system, or even whether they should be dealt with outside the system altogether?
That’s the question raised in a new paper produced by the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP) at John Jay College, as part of its series on “Reimagining the Role of the Prosecutor.”
“Typically, after a case is charged and pleaded or sentence reached, prosecutors consider the case closed,” the paper noted.
But, the authors added, that should only be the beginning of a more integrated approach to public safety.
“As public figures, prosecutors have the means to not only levy charges against those who are accused of criminal offenses, but also to activate public resources, and the public consciousness around the underlying causes of these challenges,” the paper said.
‘Guardians of Justice’
Noting that prosecutors are not only law enforcers, but “guardians of justice,” the paper called on them to consider whether it is “just to prosecute [persons] for breaking the law if they have evident needs [which] drive their justice involvement that cannot be addressed through a charge and conviction.”
The paper—co-authored by John Choi, County Attorney for Ramsey County in Minnesota; Bob Gualtieri, Sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida; Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures; and Allison Goldberg, policy advisor at IIP—set out a blueprint for enabling prosecutors to shift their focus “from punishment to problem-solving.”
And they gave prosecutors a higher standard to work towards than just getting troubled individuals off the street.
“This shift can reduce the criminalization of poverty and mental illness, better provide support to individuals, and allow prosecutors to focus their attention on more pressing public safety issues,” the authors said.
Getting there, they wrote, involves four conceptual changes in how prosecutors traditionally operate:
- Instead of treating frequent arrests or recidivism as the product of an individual’s failure to live up to community norms, consider the case as an example of a “failure on the part of the criminal justice system” to deal with the issues that brought him or her there in the first place;
- Instead of relying on traditional data such as an individual’s rap sheet to determine the level and severity of punishment, consider the individual’s entire picture of interactions with community services such as healthcare and homeless shelters, and with his or her family or community;
- Develop “benchmarks of progress” for justice-involved individuals that go beyond recidivism to explore how well an individual can take advantage of healthcare and counseling services or drug treatment, and address the reasons for failure to live up to court-mandated treatment—such as lack of transportation or high costs;
- Break the traditional “silos” that separate prosecutors from community services, and actively lobby for better policies and resources that can ameliorate the circumstances and conditions that turn a small group of people into repeated “users” of the justice system, at a huge cost to taxpayers and to public safety.
The paper said smarter use of the huge store of data now available about individuals who cycle between the justice and health systems was critical, in close partnership with community organizations and services.
“For example, if data reveals that an individual is repeatedly arrested two weeks after a stay at an ER, community-based organization can intervene during that time frame and provide case management to identify the causes of the pattern, interrupt the cycle…and ensure the person has access to quality care and support,” the authors wrote.
They cautioned that some aspects of the shift needed to be done with care, such as ensuring that the privacy of personal data used to assess justice-involved individuals was protected.
And they emphasized that expanding the traditional role of the prosecutor did not mean a reduced emphasis on applying punishment for serious crime.
But they maintained that prosecutors needed to “have a strong voice in advocating for policies, programs and resources that ensure people have quality care during their sentence and opportunities for reintegration upon their release.”
Read the full paper here.