• Redesigning NYC's Criminal Justice System

How Would You Remake New York's Justice System?

At this progressive moment for the city, New Yorkers can work together to design a criminal justice system that is more humane and less wasteful. Let that work begin here.

In light of New York City’s progressive political spring, we need coherent guiding principles that challenge societal norms and inform the work of transforming the punitive experience of criminal punishment to one that fosters ongoing personal growth and social responsibility, including among people who broke the law, and that supports restoration and healing among its community members. We are asking for your help in articulating those principles.

This statement of values and demands – a manifesto – should be a holistic framework informed by empathy and good science, the product of evaluating our current system of punishment and its costs from point of entry through detention, incarceration, parole and beyond.

It should reflect the goal of a new, more just system of justice: a penal system structured in accord with what science tells us about lifelong human development and growth, grounded in human rights and restorative justice principles; a system that makes the effort to identify the root cause of each person’s transgressions and gives people in prison the opportunity to make positive changes while under state jurisdiction and to give back to their communities, as found in nations like Norway.

While safety concerns are primary, the punitive response of incarceration and removal from the community is not always the answer, especially among those individuals who have been rehabilitated. A model based on restorative justice, not fear, would yield greater overall benefits. If persons with conviction histories maintain their links with the community and are given better skills with which to enter the workforce and reintegrate, society will be a safer place than it is now, when people return from the prison experience damaged, unemployed and angry.

Is an enlightened system based on restorative principles costly? Not when compared to the annual expense of $167,731 to house one person at Rikers Island, as reported by the Independent Budget Office, or the more than $60,000 it costs to incarcerate one person in New York State prison (more depending on their age), according to the 2012 Pew Report on the States—for a total cost of more than $5.6 billion for the state and city penal systems. Our creed should be crystal clear and tough questions must be asked: Do New Yorkers really believe that incarcerating the elderly until death, despite extremely low recidivism rates of approximately 1 percent after age 50, best serves the public interest?

On the benefit side, a holistic and rehabilitative system better prepares persons for life in the community while saving considerable state resources. While in prison a person could receive advanced vocational training in a skilled trade, pursue secondary education (in-state, full-time CUNY tuition was $5,730 in 2013.), or receive intensive treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues—and should be free from re-traumatization through solitary confinement or physical abuse. Penalties would be fashioned in accord with treatment objectives, and would be time-limited. A holistic system would also teach accountability and responsibility to reduce the risk of future criminal behavior.

Eligible persons could participate in temporary work release, be placed under intensive supervision in the community or housed near their families in order to maintain essential connections. Possibilities for parole release would be meaningful and motivational; a transparent parole process would operate in accord with established science by evaluating risk and by promoting personal growth and development throughout the human life span. Release would no longer be dictated by the backward looking “nature of the crime" committed many years past. It would be governed by a keen evaluation with relevant criteria, such as COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, a research-based risk- and needs-assessment tool for criminal justice practitioners), compassion for the elderly, and an accommodation of those no longer posing a threat to the community. Such goals are well-served by the SAFE Parole Act, which is languishing in the State legislature.

People who return to the community would be given a meaningful opportunity to participate in the work force. This aim would be greatly advanced by the adoption of forward-looking legislation like “Ban the Box," which is currently moving through the legislatures of several states. If such barriers to (re)integration are removed, history has shown that norms evolve. The reintegrating person – like anyone relegated to the margins – is best served by removing stigma and promoting full participation in all aspects of the community, including voting, jury duty, housing and the workforce.

Because the shaping of operative values is a communal activity, we invite readers to actively think about the type of society they want and to make their voices heard. Please share your thoughts about the current punishment system and its overarching values, along with constructive suggestions for advancing a human rights and compassionate care-based corrections policy by posting your comment in response to this call for participation in the comments box below. And please visit this page regularly to see the conversation that unfolds, and take part in it.

Authors Westcott and Maschi are spearheading the Manifesto on Full Community Participation project.   A published version of the Manifesto will appear later this spring and form the basis of subsequent public discussions.

Jarrett Murphy

executive editor and publisher, City Limits

One area of the criminal justice system that often escapes attention is what happens before a person goes to trial or pleads guilty. Pre-trial detention sometimes has more of a destructive impact on a defendant than any sentence, especially when the criminal charges are fairly minor: People can spend more time in jail as a pre-trial detainee than they would if convicted and incarcerated. This damages careers and families, and often occurs only because a person cannot afford bail. The state has moved toward bail reform but more thinking is needed about a pre-trial supervision system that gets people to come to court without locking so many up to do so.



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