To Reduce Juvenile Recidivism at Rikers, New York City Bets on ABLE


NEW YORK — Jafar Abbas knows more than he’d like about recidivism – and its cruel costs. It robbed him of his youth, many prime years, too; more than a quarter century. It started out with skipping school and petty theft. That landed him in a reformatory school; later, a year in county jail. After a robbery gone bad he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in an upstate prison. When he went in it was 1982 and he was 20; when he got out it was 2007 and he was 44.

Explaining how he squandered his youth does not come easily. Although he typically speaks with a natural, unstudied eloquence, he stumbles over unspoken remorse. But his regret now stokes a quietly desperate attempt to balance the scales in his life by trying to save poor teens of color, like he was, from getting sucked into a life of crime and punishment.

As a survivor of the road-better-not-taken, Jafar is an invaluable front-line team member of a new program, Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE), which aims to straighten out New York City juvenile delinquents after their first serious encounter with the law and who find themselves locked up on Rikers Island. More than 175,000 arrests are processed annually at Rikers through the 10 separate jails located on the 413-acre island, just a short swim from runways at La Guardia Airport. “I don’t want these young men to have to travel the same path that I travelled. I let them know that all my 20s, all my 30s and half my 40s was spent inside,” explains Abbas, now 51. Abbas was one of eight kids whose family life deteriorated markedly after his church-going parents split up. His mother was forced to work two jobs and he was looked after by an older sister.

He offers up his life story as a cautionary tale. “There are the things you do when you’re 20: you graduate, you go to college, you meet a girl, you might have a baby, you go out on your own, get an apartment, a car, all this stuff,” he says. “I’m telling [them] that I didn’t do that — that these years was basically lost. ... And if you continue on the [same] path that you’re going to miss out on living. They need to know that if their thinking does not change then they’re going to basically give up life.”

The ABLE program is aimed at helping more NYC youth avoid this all-too-common tragedy and to say it is an overdue effort is an understatement. Juvenile recidivism has long been stubbornly stuck around 50 percent — within three years roughly 70 percent of these kids are back in trouble. More than 95 percent are African-American and Latinos. Among first-time offenders some 80 percent will eventually be released, although that can take many months, if not a year or longer. If out on conditional release, even jumping a subway turnstile can land you back on Rikers, especially if you are too poor to post bail.

It might not be too cynical to say that Rikers has become, in effect, a kind a youth farm league for the “Big House” — as New York’s extensive upstate prison archipelago is known among inmates, who currently number roughly 54,000, down from more than 66,000 in 2003. Other counties in the state hold more than 17,000 additional inmates. Reversing this appalling record — with its huge fiscal and incalculable social costs — should be uppermost in public regard of this undertaking. It is part of  a larger effort known as the Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), started by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2010 as he entered his third term, to “help at-risk young men build stronger futures for themselves and their families.” The city’s more than a quarter-million young black and brown men are the intended beneficiaries, only about half of whom finish high school, with less than one in five ready for college, according to YMI and Department of Education statistics.

Instead, much of the press coverage has emphasized how ABLE is being financed — through a bank loan with enough unique pay-back features to be classified as that new novelty, often called a “social impact bond,” also known as a form of “pay-for-success” financing. The fact that it is the country’s first SIB also makes it newsworthy, as does the involvement of lender Goldman Sachs (through its Urban Investment Group), whose controversial practices has made it a lightning rod for public antipathy for the finance sector’s excesses. Christened the Vampire Squid by Rolling Stone magazine in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, controversy continues to stalk the investment banking firm. However self-serving, or perhaps even seemingly oxymoronic, Goldman’s involvement may be, it does still deserve credit for being the first, especially if this high-profile experiment succeeds and spurs replication. (There are already numerous subsequent efforts, many aimed at recidivism reduction.)

As it is, far from the paragon it is in many areas of social policy, New York City is still “eating its young.” Alone but for North Carolina, New York treats its 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. They are automatically channeled to the harsher adult court system. And for some crimes this applies to kids as young as 13. Roughly 4,000 teens are handled this way every year, but the self-inflicted damage to our kids is manifold.

Once on Rikers, aside from living in segregated quarters with mandatory education classes, these kids are not treated much differently. They spend more time in solitary confinement than adults, even though they are far less psychologically resilient than adults, according to Growing Up Locked Down, an ACLU/Human Rights Watch report that argues the state is violating its “special responsibilities not to treat young people in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation, regardless of their culpability.”

“There is a very strong research body that shows that prosecuting kids as adults has worse outcomes in terms of public safety and future recidivism — it increases future violence and recidivism — than kids tried in youth justice system,” notes Gabrielle Horowitz-Prisco, director of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association of New York. “It’s bad for public safety [and] it winds up costing taxpayers a lot of money because of the long term cost of young people being saddled with criminal records for the rest of their lives [complicating educational loans and future employment] — and New York is way behind the country in figuring this out.”


The new ABLE program arguably represents New York City’s most serious effort to choke off the feeder system to the state prison system. The guts of the program, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is hardly new, however. It emerged from drug rehabilitation work during the mid-1980s in the Tennessee correctional system and was codified and trademarked in 1988 as moral reconation therapy (MRT), which seeks to cultivate better decision-making. Since that time more than a million offenders (juveniles and adults, substances abusers and domestic abuse offenders too) have had MRT, according to its progenitors at Correctional Counseling Inc., which claims high success rates in a wide variety of settings, in correctional services in 47 states, and spreading internationally, all with almost no marketing. (The word reconation comes from the psychological terms conative and conation, which refer to the process of making deliberate, conscious moral decisions.)

The brand name reflects the emphasis laid on cultivating moral reasoning and instilling more responsibility. A guided 12-step process, enumerated in the basic textbook, “How to Escape Your Prison,” is worked through in daily 51-minute classes. The class is mandatory like the rest of the school day, and displaces a previously scheduled art class. One writing exercises asks students to reflect on six personal relationships they have harmed and how they can repair them, and when.

Students are provided writing paper, envelopes and stamps and are encouraged to write family members. “You’re dealing with kids who may not even really know how to approach a big topic like apologizing to their mom, or somebody that they really hurt [and] really feel bad about. … You can start helping them find words to express what they want to express,” Abbas said, who effectively dropped out of school in the third-grade, later earned a masters in Sing Sing prison. Reaching certain steps is rewarded with $25 gift certificates, sent back to their families. Other certificates can be brought to court to show judges and prosecutors while ABLE’s service providers, the Osborne Association and Friends of the Island Academy, who do the actual work with the teens, familiarize the court with what progress these certificates signify.

Various community services are also required, including cleaning, making up class flashcards and writing letters to lonely seniors, explained Jafar, who confesses early skepticism. “Even those kids who act like they really don’t want to do no work, or who don’t even open a book, they listen to what’s being said. They listen to the presentations; they listen to the testimonies and a seed has been planted. For the kids who put the additional work in, who do the exercises, you see the growth especially in relationship building,” says Abbas, who has worked there for about a year.

Another marked change is that the kids no longer jump up from their chairs to hurl obscenities out the classroom window to any passers-by. “I see a lot of kids thinking differently, the conversations they have with each other is different, it’s not just fully about everything negative. You start to talk about stuff that’s positive and that’s something that you wasn’t hearing too much when we first started this program,” Abbas says.

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Even for kids facing prison time, MRT can help, he says. “If you have to go upstate, basically you want to go with as less time as you possibly can get,” he explains. “But in order to get [that] you have to man up, you have to basically not be going into the courtroom lying to your lawyer and to the district attorney and to the judge. You need to go in there, you need to basically be upfront and be truthful: ‘Yeah, I made a mistake, it was wrong.’ You got to let them know that you are changing. And doing that right there: you go upstate responsible and you go upstate with a plan.”

The city’s past neglect might suggest the ABLE program is well-positioned to harvest some low-hanging fruit, particularly given CCI’s boast of recidivism reduction rates of 50 percent or more. That could be Goldman Sachs’ calculation as well, besides the image burnishing from supporting such as sensible social good. After all, to be deemed successful, and for interest payments to begin, ABLE only has reduce recidivism by 10 percent. Terms of the contract also require that ABLE reaches three-quarters of teens expected to pass through Rikers over four years — about 9,240.

Another attraction is the easy to understand metrics involved, not very dissimilar to analyzing hotels. The program’s performance is measured by its impact on “readmission bed days” (also called “future days in jail”) in Corrections custody during the two years after each young person is released. The central question for the independent evaluator of the program, the Vera Institute of Justice, will be this: “Did the implementation of ABLE lead to a reduction in readmission bed-days (RBDs) in DOC custody as outlined in the payment terms?” — notes a report from MRDC, the social policy research organization overseeing the program for the city, referred to as the intermediary. The report, “Financing Promising Evidence-based Programs:  Early Lessons from New York City Social Impact Bond,” is the most comprehensive report to date on the project.

Answering this key question may be less straightforward than it might at first seem. To begin with, Vera will employ a “quasi-experimental evaluation approach,” according to the report, “in which a cohort of adolescents held in DOC custody at Rikers Island during calendar year 2013 is compared with a historical group that did not receive the program. The evaluation will assess RBDs for both groups at two points: after 12 months in the community following initial release and after 24 months in the community following initial release.”

Then there is the matter of cost savings. The program’s primary aim is to improve the “lives of low-income and at-risk individuals and families,” but clearly the city hopes to do well by doing good, or better. In effect, these are conflated — cost savings are a proxy for this positive social impact. Teens not in trouble — not costing money by taking up a bed on Rikers — means they are out in their communities leading better lives.

Previous incarceration cost calculations suggest New York City’s savings could be quite substantial, although getting a bead on reliable figures is difficult. The Vera Institute has calculated the annual cost in New York State at $60,076 per annum for each inmate. This is twice the national average but in New York City it is nearly three times that amount — $167,731 per inmate, according to the City’s Independent Budget Office, which is about twice what the City’s corrections department has calculated at $85,000 a year per inmate. The Mayor’s Management Report put the average annual detention cost for one bed in secure detention in FY2009 to at $226,320

Whatever the actual cost, there are clearly substantial potential public savings, which the city will largely retain. City negotiators insisted that interest payments to Goldman be capped at $11.7 million, which effectively limits Goldman’s potential upside to a net profit of $2.1 million. That would nearly double the $2.6 million the bank put at risk. That’s based on the initial loan of $9.6 million, which enjoyed a back-stop guarantee of $7.1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which it would pay Goldman if the program were to fail. For Goldman to earn the full amount possible — by reducing recidivism by 20 percent — would mean the City was, at the same time, realizing net savings of $20 million, according to the MDRC study.

Significant economies of scale should incentivize the city, which could save “approximately $4,600 per jail bed for reductions of less than 100 beds, but approximately $28,000 per jail bed for reductions of 100 beds or more.” This is because of the jail’s many fixed costs, particularly staffing. When a whole housing unit can be closed, the Department of Corrections can lower its staffing needs  “by reducing spending on overtime for uniformed staff,” according to the MDRC report. Overall, says David Butler, who is overseeing the program for MRDC, “the city is always doing very, very well here in terms of its net return on the investment compared to what it’s paying out.”

So what are the prospects of ABLE achieving these goals? And does the fact that the recidivism rate has remained stubbornly high for years suggest it is an intractable challenge or simply ripe for improvement? “We obviously thought the latter otherwise we wouldn’t have done it,” Butler says. “This is the first social impact bond and I don’t think anybody wanted to pick something that was really innovative but had a high likelihood of not succeeding. I mean why would you want to do that when you’re testing something there and this is the first time?”

Academic studies of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offer grounds for optimism. One meta-analysis study of various types of CBT found unequivocal improvements in recidivism reduction, with a mean of 25 percent, some with more than 50 percent reduction. “Though generalization to routine practice cannot be assured, the consistency and magnitude of the effects found in the research to date leave little doubt that CBT is capable of producing significant reductions in the recidivism of even high-risk offenders under favorable conditions,” concluded a 2005 study by Nana Landenberger and Mark Lipsey, at Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies, which tried to identify factors ensuring effective treatment.

The report studied a number of name brand CBTs — in order of academic literature validation these included Reasoning and Rehabilitation (Ross and Fabiano 1985), Moral Reconation Therapy (Little and Robinson 1986), Aggression Replacement Training (Goldstein and Glick 1987), the Thinking for a Change curriculum (Bush et. al. 1997), and the Cognitive Interventions Program (NIC, 1996) — without endorsing any particular one. The “general CBT approach,” not any specific version, seems responsible for the overall positive effects, it noted. Most successful were those programs ensuring adequate training for CBT providers and implementation monitoring, along with low drop-out rates. More specifically it noted that the inclusion of “distinct anger control” and interpersonal problem solving components seemed to enhance positive results, while including “victim impact” (“activities aimed and getting offenders to consider the impact of their behavior on their victims”) and behavior modification (“behavioral contracts and/or reward and penalty schemes designed to reinforce appropriate behavior”) yielded less effective results.

Importantly, the study noted positive results achieved for juveniles as well as adults without regard for treatment settings, prisons or community-based settings, while on parole, probation or in some transitional aftercare. Particularly encouraging is that the effects of CBT were greater for offenders with higher risk of recidivism than those with lower risk. This may seem counter-intuitive, but adequate exposure to CBT can yield results five times greater than work with less high risk offenders. The contrary finding is consistent, the authors noted, with the principles of effective correctional treatment developed by D.A. Andrews, a Carleton University professor of psychology and criminology and criminal justice, and colleagues, developed in work that goes back to 1990.

“They argue,” noted Lipsey and Landenberger, “that the best results occur when higher-risk offenders receive more intensive services that target criminogenic needs (e.g., criminal thinking patterns) using cognitive behavioral and social learning approaches.” The distillation of this thinking by Andrews, and his main collaborator James Bonta — which brings back the ‘person’ into criminology by focusing on individual differences and the importance of personal, interpersonal and community factors – is found in “The Psychology of Criminal Conduct,” now in its fifth edition as a Google book.

A more recent meta-analysis notes that the success rates have been high enough to earn “Evidence-Based Practice Status” from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal government agency advancing behavioral health.

Still, MDRC’s Butler rejects the notion there is any easy picking at the Rikers Island experiment, in large part because the scale of what New York is trying — to reach thousands of kids, not just hundreds — has inherent complications. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk by any means. I think it’s promising but there is risk here frankly,” says Butler. “We’re in the business of doing social policy research at MDRC — we’ve been doing it for a long, long time — and most of these interventions, when we evaluate them rigorously, even if they’ve been promising based on prior evidence, are not successful when you do them on a large scale. I mean that is the history of policy research in this business. So I think I’m not going to call this a very likely success and frankly it wouldn’t surprise me all that much if it wasn’t successful.”

That would seem to reinforce, perhaps inadvertently, the sound observation offered by Susan Gottesfeld, associate executive director of the Osborne Association that less incarceration is better. “If you have a kid who goes a whole year without somebody holding them, or kissing them, or saying good night or good morning or ‘How was your day?’ — separated from love and nurturance, never mind connection to community, family, school and services — the tougher it is for them to recover or just the more barriers they face when they come out,” she says. “It is important to do really meaningful, proven work with kids when they are in detention or serving sentences but it is also very, very important to bolster opportunities for alternatives for them to shorten their stays or to avoid going to jail, in detention or incarceration altogether.”

The challenges are not deterring Abbas’ mission, which involves a two and half a hour commute each way to and from his home near the Outer Bridge on Staten Island. Those daily journeys convey something of his dedication for these kids, who he likens to jewels in a treasure chest, a metaphor they can all relate to.

“I let them know that for our people, in our community, that you all are that treasure but that somehow you got stolen away and that I’m here to get you all back,” he says. “I try to get them to visualize their value, that they are important and that we need you to build yourself into young men so that you can come out and help us resolve some of the issues that exist in our community.”

He knows that like him, they rarely, if ever, heard anyone while they were growing up talk about their value to their communities’ future. “But I make sure that I tell them and I always let them know that I’m speaking on behalf of the village, that the village needs you and the village wants you — and what [good] condition the village needs you to build yourself up to.”

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