Nov 18, 2014

WSJ Online: "A Surprising Portrait of the Misdemeanor Criminal"

As Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (2014), is implemented in California, this opinion (recently published in the Wall Street Journal) sheds light on the needs of misdemeanor offenders and opportunities to divert individuals away from the criminal justice system, and into social services, through court interventions.

The author, Greg Berman, is the director of the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization that conducts research and operates model projects such as the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

A Surprising Portrait of the Misdemeanor Criminal
By Greg Berman

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a report at the end of October documenting the rise of misdemeanor arrests in New York City since the 1980s. The timing of the report was fortuitous. The city’s policy makers, academics and advocacy groups are in the midst of a spirited debate over the merits of broken-windows policing—a philosophy that suggests police can help prevent crime by addressing low-level disorder.

To proponents, broken windows is not just the linchpin of New York’s miraculous public-safety improvements over the past generation. It is one of the foundations of civilized society: If we do not care for the physical appearance of our city or attempt to promote civil behavior among its inhabitants, we court chaos.

Critics of broken windows point to the collateral damage that accompanies low-level law enforcement—citing thousands of New Yorkers exposed to criminal convictions, potential incarceration and negative long-term consequences like exclusion from public housing and diminished job prospects.

Opponents of broken windows tend to focus on one segment of the misdemeanor population. A recent piece by Michael Greenberg in the Nov. 6 New York Review of Books is typical. Highlighting a 17-year-old student apprehended for possessing the remnants of a joint, Mr. Greenberg writes: “By an overwhelming majority, New Yorkers who are arrested for low-level infractions . . . are young black and Hispanic men in poor neighborhoods. Often these arrests have been for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana . . . police saddle thousands of young men with criminal records for an offense that the state has largely decriminalized and that white people regularly commit with impunity.”

There are thousands of people who fit this description. The John Jay College report highlights that the rate of misdemeanor arrests for black men between the ages of 18 and 20 in New York City almost tripled between 1990 and 2013—rising to more than 20,000 arrests per 100,000 people from fewer than 8,000 per 100,000.

But this is an incomplete portrait of the misdemeanor population. The John Jay study documents that half of the misdemeanor arrests in New York City are a direct response to complaints or involve more serious misdemeanor offenses such as domestic violence, theft or weapons possession.

In an effort to better understand all this, the Center for Court Innovation is conducting a study that has involved interviewing nearly 1,000 people charged with misdemeanors in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The first thing to note is that most of them are not teens—the average age is 35. They are also not newcomers to the criminal justice system—more than half have prior misdemeanor convictions and more than a third have prior felony convictions.

There’s a saying that misdemeanors aren’t complicated legal cases, but they are committed by people with complicated lives. The data underline this truth. This is a population with serious problems and multiple needs. More than half of our sample reported being unemployed, and nearly one in two said they use drugs daily. Mental health issues abound. The prevalence of trauma was staggering. More than half of the sample reported having witnessed a shooting or other violent event. One in four reported having experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Nearly 20% said they had attempted suicide.

The emerging research suggests several new directions for the criminal-justice system. First, there are opportunities to divert out of the system thousands of New Yorkers who have been apprehended for quality-of-life offenses such as marijuana possession or transportation-fare avoidance. These opportunities should be seized—either by not making formal arrests or by increasing the use of pretrial diversion programs for young people and those who have committed a single infraction or two. When interacting with these and other populations on the streets, the police should take pains to explain their decisions clearly and to treat individuals with dignity and respect; research suggests this will promote law-abiding behavior in the long run.

But the research tells us that many people accused of misdemeanors come to the justice system with more serious issues than occasional marijuana use. Yet there are opportunities for reform here, too. Instead of using jail as a default, courts can be much more aggressive in linking misdemeanor offenders to drug treatment, job training and mental-health counseling, for instance, addressing the kinds of problems that lead to more criminal behavior.

There is already solid evidence that this can make a difference. The Red Hook Community Justice Center was created in 2000 to expand the use of alternatives to incarceration for misdemeanor offenders in southwest Brooklyn. Each year the center links thousands of defendants to social services and community restitution projects in lieu of jail. An independent evaluation in 2013 by the National Center for State Courts documented that the project reduced the number of defendants receiving jail sentences by 35%. Over a two-year study period, adult defendants handled at the Justice Center were 10% less likely to commit new crimes than offenders who were processed in a traditional courthouse. Juvenile defendants were 20% less likely to re-offend.

The reductions in felony crimes over the last 30 years have been hailed around the world as “the New York miracle,” and credited with reducing fear and improving economic development. Today we are experiencing an ancillary benefit: The decline of felonies has created breathing room to give misdemeanors and the people who commit them the focus they deserve.

Nov 10, 2014

Documentary short celebrates the beginning of Drug Court

"It was a statement, by us, that the human being is worth redeeming. We started 
what was known as Diversion and Treatment Court, which eventually became Drug Court."
– Judge Herbert Klein, founder of first drug court in Miami-Dade County

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals released a documentary short about the beginning of the drug court movement, entitled "The Beginning."

As stated in NADCP's announcement, the film "brings to life the incredible story of how an innovation from Miami, Florida sparked a national movement. Today, there are over 2,900 Drug Courts nationwide serving 144,000 people on any given day. But 25 years ago, Drug Court was a target of ridicule within a justice system  committed to the status quo. This inspiring film brings together for the first time the earliest pioneers of the Drug Court movement to tell the story of how Drug Court triumphed against all odds.

"NADCP titled the documentary The Beginning because it is just that. The film takes viewers back 25 years to look at the conditions within the justice system that led to widespread frustration, and which opened the door to radical change. Revealing interviews explore how the concept of Drug Court was received by the justice community and the heroics involved with implementing the nation’s first several programs.

"Over the past 25 years, Drug Courts have not only been accepted, they have risen to become an indispensible part of American criminal justice. There is still more story to be told and NADCP is committed to telling it. For now, it is our privilege to offer this film to over 30,000 professionals working in Drug Courts today, and millions more whose lives have been touched by this incredible program"

SAMHSA publishes Childen Affected by Metamphamine Brief

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released its Children Affected By Methamphetamine (CAM) Brief. CAM is a SAMHSA-funded grant program focused on expanding and/or enhancing services to children and their families who are affected by parental methamphetamine use and abuse. Four-year CAM grants were awarded to 12 Family Treatment Drug Courts (FTDCs) nationwide, six in California. 

The following are highlights from the CAM program (p. 6 of the brief):

The CAM grantees’ preliminary outcomes make clear that a comprehensive family-centered FTDC approach that addresses the specific needs of children and families, in addition to a parent’s recovery, contributes to improved child, parent, and family well-being.
  1. The majority of children at risk of removal remained in the custody of their parent(s) and did not experience maltreatment after entering the CAM program.
  2. The majority of children in out-of-home placement achieved timely reunification with their parent(s). After returning home, very few children re-entered foster care.
  3. Adults stayed in substance abuse treatment (on average, about 6 months) and nearly half successfully completed treatment.
  4. The majority of adults also reduced their use of alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine.
  5. Families showed statistically significant improvements in their overall child well-being and family functioning, with the greatest gains made in family safety, readiness for reunification, and parental capabilities. 

Click here to learn more about the CAM program or view the full brief

Oct 16, 2014

RAND study shows CJC leads to fewer arrests

The RAND Corporation released its study of San Francisco’s Community Justice Center last week. 

CJC opened in March 2009 and through December 2013 had heard nearly 10,000 cases involving 6,000 defendants. The program seeks to help arrestees receive the services they need and reduce the likelihood that arrestees ultimately end up with convictions on their permanent record. 

“Our findings support the hypothesis that San Francisco’s Community Justice Center reduces criminal recidivism,” said Beau Kilmer, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Kilmer and co-author Jesse Sussell examined one-year rearrest rates among those arrested for eligible offenses -- such as theft, vandalism, drug offenses, assault and disorderly conduct -- inside and outside the catchment area both before and after the CJC opened. The analysis found that the probability of rearrest for those originally arrested outside the CJC catchment area increased over time, while the probability of rearrest for those originally arrested inside the center’s jurisdiction decreased over time. After applying statistical models, researchers estimate that those arrested for an eligible offense in the CJC catchment area after it opened were 8.9 percent to 10.3 percent less likely to be rearrested within one year.

Because CJC's intervention is multifaceted, an important question for future research is determining which elements of the community court are most beneficial. Access to services is an obvious candidate, but in San Francisco another candidate is the reduced interval between citation and first appearance in court. Sussell said that arrestees cited to the traditional system typically were ordered to report to the court more than a month after a citation was issued. Arrestees cited to the Community Justice Center often had to report to the court within seven business days.

“Not only do we want to learn more about how access to services affects these arrestees, we also want to know whether decreasing the number of days between arrest and going to court makes a difference,” Sussell said.

Funding for the study was provided by the City and County of San Francisco.

Click below to read the full report and appendix:
Does San Francisco’s Community Justice Center Reduce Criminal Recidivism?