Almost everyone loses when misdemeanor defendants spend time in jail while their cases are pending in criminal court.
Our jails are accelerants of human misery any problem a defendant has before he enters the gates of Rikers Island is almost sure to be worse when he leaves. The negative consequences of jail time ripple outward from each defendant to his family, his neighborhood, and indeed to all taxpayers in New York City, who must bear the brunt of supporting a correctional apparatus that costs upwards of a billion dollars a year.
There is now a concerted effort in New York City to create meaningful off-ramps out of the justice system, particularly for those who have engaged in low-level misbehavior. This can be seen in the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Incarceration and Criminal Justice Reform, chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. This can be seen in the work by the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to make it easier to pay bail and to create a supervised release program so that thousands of defendants can be released to the community rather than detained. And this can be seen in the passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which moved selected criminal cases out of the criminal justice system and into the civil system.
Perhaps most encouragingly, law enforcement agencies are also getting in on the act. The New York Police Department and the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorney’s Offices have created Project Reset to divert young people facing charges like trespassing and shoplifting from the system prior to appearing in court. Prosecutors review each case in consultation with the defense bar and refer eligible cases to our agency, which provides short-term social services for participants.
Jails cost city $1.36B in 2017 even with decrease in inmates
Participants who successfully complete counseling sessions or group workshops have their cases dismissed. They do not have to go to court and no record of their engagement with the justice system is retained.
Diversion programs are not just a common sense approach to improving the delivery of justice, they also are cost-effective alternative to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to detain each inmate on Rikers Island.
If these individual reforms are sustained over time, they will add up to something significant a re-thinking of the standard approach to misdemeanor crime and an important step toward the creation of a more fair and humane justice system.
Greg Berman and Julian Adler work at the Center for Court Innovation. They are the authors of Start Here: A Practical Guide to Reducing Incarceration.