Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Newark Community Solutions – What are we trying to do? (Part 2)

In 2008, we sat down with local judges and court administrators to talk about their priorities and the opportunities presented by community justice initiatives like the Midtown Community Court and Bronx Community Solutions. Thankfully, our task wasn't as daunting as we had originally thought. Most of them were already interested in exploring new and effective solutions to problems their courts had wrestled with for years. In particular, they were looking for responses that would help defendants address the social issues that drive their offending. A comment from one judge seemed to encapsulate their dilemma "I’ve got plenty of jail for them. But sometimes, jail isn't where they belong."

So with that in mind, we eventually settled on three goals NCS would pursue.

                      Decrease The Court’s Use Of Fines Or Short-term Jail

Why? Because, neither offenders nor communities can afford fines or jail as the default response to low-level crimes. Indigent offenders can't pay the fines and cash strapped municipalities find it more and more difficult to justify $100 dollar-a-day jail stays for those with issues that can be more appropriately addressed within the community. Decades of research and experience indicate traditional sentencing schemes, especially those common in lower courts, aren’t an effective response for many offenders. This is especially true for offenders who struggle with issues like homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

                      Increase Offender Compliance 

Why? Courts, in the end, are about holding guilty parties accountable. Accordingly, many judges are only inclined to offer alternative sentence when they are convinced the offender will follow through with their order. Alternative sentencing schemes can't be seen as just an opportunity for the defendants to “game” the system. So what do we do?  In addition to using evidence-based assessment instruments and creating robust compliance protocols, we put resources (staff) in place whose responsibilities include reinforcing the court's stance on compliance and provide encouragement when participants encounter the challenges that lead to noncompliance.

                      Increase The Court’s Use Of Social And Community Service

Why? Many offenders are sorely in need of social services. At NCS, 69% of participants have a positive mental health or drug abuse screen, 29% are homeless and 45% lack a high school diploma. Their personal histories are filled with attempts at getting help that ultimately end in frustration and disillusionment.  Without the helping hand offered by NCS, most will continue to cycle through the system.

Finally, meaningful and visible community services sends a clear message to all that offenders are obliged to pay back for the harm they’ve done. And, when the community service program is run effectively, it can serve to reconnect the same offenders to the community they once harmed.*

Eighteen months in, we are doing pretty well. To date, 1900 participants have enrolled with the program. 74% percent have complied with the court’s orders and many continue to work with us voluntarily after their matter is settled.

*Among other characteristics, an effective community service program would include a robust monitoring component and leverage community partners who can help offenders attain skills or other pathways to employment.

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