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How I Keep People Out of Jail

​How the director of operations at the Center for Court Innovation in New York City is working to create a fairer criminal justice system.


As the director of operations at the Center for Court Innovation in New York City, I'm working to create a fairer criminal justice system. Specifically, I oversee programs designed to keep those who run afoul of the law inside their communities, rather than inside a cell. You probably won't read about me publicly protesting some wrongful conviction or police killing. Instead, I work behind-the-scenes with the government—the people with their hands on the levers of power—to bring change from within.

While the recent conversation about criminal justice has turned to the potential implications of Donald Trump's election, the reality is that most of the action in America's criminal justice system is controlled by each state's own criminal laws, not the federal government's. Luckily for me, my work is local.

When I got started here in early 1997, the center was less than a year old, and we ran three projects with a staff of about 30 people. Today, we manage dozens of programs around New York and New Jersey, like the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which provides drug treatment and other programs for offenders, and Newark Community Solutions , where a judge actually makes people write essays about how they intend to change their lives. We also have a cutting-edge research team and advise city, state, and national governments around the country and the world. The center boasts about 400 employees these days, but more important than our size is the fact that research has showed our approach works. Each year, the center and groups like it help thousands of criminal defendants and other at-risk folks from low-income neighborhoods.

Our criminal justice work focuses on expanding—in a safe, responsible way—the use of what are commonly called "alternatives to incarceration." We bring social science into the courtroom, which basically means inserting social workers into the court process so it's as easy for prosecutors and judges to sentence defendants to closely supervised mental health counseling, drug treatment, and job training as it is to send them to jail. Believe it or not, every year, in the courts where we offer these services, hundreds and sometimes thousands of defendants are sentenced to community-based services, often avoiding jail and the stigma of a criminal record. It is genuinely exciting to work closely with one of the most hierarchical bureaucracies out there—an overburdened court system in America's largest city—and convince a judge to try something new.

Above all, the justice system must orient itself toward serving the needs of its communities, not just the demands of the state.

We're also trying to change the experience of victims, community residents, and defendants in the legal system. That means using plain language and more thoughtful communication in the courtroom and creating more welcoming, less confusing courthouses. We want people—victims, community residents, even defendants—to feel respected, to understand what's happening in court, and to have a voice in their cases. When we do these things, research suggests, defendants are more likely to perceive the process as fair and the system as legitimate, even if they ultimately lose their case. Not infrequently, criminal defendants leave our court projects actually thanking police and court officers for how they have been treated. These seemingly small changes are the bedrock of a more equitable justice system.

Finally, we involve residents and neighborhoods in the work of justice with initiatives like teen-led peer courts and community-led efforts to remake dangerous areas into safe, activated public spaces . We've even adapted the concept of the "peacemaking circle ," a community-led approach to resolving disputes first developed by aboriginal tribal nations in the rural North American West, to our Brooklyn neighborhoods.

For the past several years in America, there's been a growing consensus that our federal, state, and local governments confine too many people—after all, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world . It's still unclear how the Trump presidency will shape public attitudes toward criminal justice. But my own experience and some public opinion polls suggest that many who haven't experienced incarceration directly now believe, all too often, it damages people and their communities, sometimes beyond repair. And a growing body of research demonstrates the fundamental truth that jail can make some inmates more likely to reoffend.

Now, I am not saying that confinement—police custody, pretrial detention, and jail and prison sentences—serves no purpose or should never be used. In fact, some defendants should be removed from the community and confined for the public's safety, for policy reasons, and for public punishment. But the realization that jail has negative effects has led to real reforms across the country. In New York City, for instance, the jail population has been cut by nearly half in the past 20 years, from almost 19,000 in 1997 to fewer than 10,000 today; and aggressive efforts are underway to reduce those numbers more.

This progress has been achieved using a bit of a kitchen-sink approach, but it seems to be working, with crime in NYC still holding steady, at historically low rates.

Over the last year, the Center for Court Innovation has worked with NYPD and several prosecutors' offices to create Project Reset, which diverts 16- and 17-year-old "adult criminals" arrested on low-level charges to restorative justice programs instead of court. (Despite an ongoing campaign to change the law, New York is one of only two states where 16 is the age at which a person is treated as an adult rather than a juvenile by the justice system.)

New York City also has finally begun to reform its bail system, launching a supervised release program (also involving the center) for more than 3,000 defendants, instead of using bail to keep them in jail. Other initiatives, including bail funds and alternative forms of bail, are making a difference, too.

We've also built on the success of drug courts, mental health courts, and a number of alternatives-to-incarceration agencies throughout the city by creating more sentencing options for large numbers of defendants. In the Bronx, nearly 10,000 criminal defendants are sentenced each year to counseling and community service provided by the center's Bronx Community Solutions instead of jail. And our Brooklyn Justice Initiatives project has teamed up with the late Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson's office to offer young adult defendants social services rather than criminal convictions.


Watch Kingsley Rowe talk about his journey from conviction on a murder charge to being a professional criminal justice advocate.


The question of how we can reduce the dominant role played by jail in society is a critical one. But, ultimately, the real question we should be asking ourselves is: How should the criminal justice system work? If we were to recreate it from the ground up, how would we do it? We know incarceration isn't effective for most criminal defendants, but how should law enforcement and the system respond to crime? What would a "healthy" system look like? Is it possible to develop an affirming, ambitious vision for the future of criminal justice?

To me, the answer should start and, in most cases, end with the community.

Above all, the justice system must orient itself toward serving the needs of its communities, not just the demands of the state. We must acknowledge that defendants are from the places we live . They are our children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, and neighbors.

If we can agree that simply throwing them in jail is, in most cases, ill-advised and even counterproductive, then we will look harder at other ways defendants can be held accountable, like restorative justice and community service. If we don't allow defendants to attempt rehabilitation back in our towns and neighborhoods, outside the walls of prisons and jails, they will return to those communities sooner or later anyway. But when they do, the psychological burdens and concrete costs (like lost school time or wages, or even psychological trauma) imposed by days, weeks, months, or years of incarceration will roadblock their efforts to reenter and become productive members of society.

Locking someone up—removing them from their family, putting their jobs at risk or making it even harder to succeed in school, and placing them in a setting that only firms up negative views of society—should be the exception, not the rule. Obviously, there are times when jail or prison is the right option. But when it's our knee-jerk response to illegal or offending behavior that could be better handled with community-based interventions, we do ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities great harm. If we can flip that default on its head and make community-based solutions easily available and the first choice for police, prosecutors, and judges across the country, we will have framed a positive vision for the future and successfully transformed justice in America.

This article is part of the VICE series The Future of Incarceration. Read the rest of the package here.