Vera Institute of Justice: Community Corrections Can Answer Mass Incarceration Problems


From The Chicago Bureau

Community supervision aimed at high-risk offenders, as well as mandatory evidence-based programs, have the potential to curtail the U.S. correctional system which has seen more than a 700 percent increase in size, the Vera Institute of Justice has found in a new report.

The term, ‘community corrections,’ refers to the supervision of those in the criminal justice system but not physically incarcerated, such as defendants on parole or probation. These individuals may directly report to a correctional officer or be involved in community programs like work release whereby they carry out the rest of their sentences in a productive setting.

In 2009, roughly seven out of 10 offenders – 5.1 million people – were under community supervision, a number that has stayed constant.

“When adequately resourced and carefully planned, community supervision can be an effective response to criminal behavior for both justice-involved individuals and communities,” according to the Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections report.

Through case studies of correctional systems in states like California, Delaware and Georgia, the center found that transforming community supervision practices to allocate resources such as staffing and funds for evidence-based programs from low-risk to high-risk offenders would allow better use of limited public safety dollars.

Currently, the estimate for total state spending on corrections is $52 billion per year, only a small fraction of which is used for community corrections due to its low cost. In some cases, it is even less than 5 percent of average cost per inmate kept in prison.

But many times, the low cost is the result of “large caseloads” and “a lack of key services,” thus demanding that more resources be allotted for community supervision.

In particular, evidence-based programs should be made mandatory and developed more fully with the goal of a “practical reality,” — such as public safety — as explained by the National Institute of Corrections, a source of the Center’s report.

An example of a state that has implemented such a program is Arkansas, who in 2011 mandated parole and probation officers to create individualized plans for all offenders, according to whether they were classified moderate- or high-risk by a risk assessment tool. This tool, the Center reported, also determines appropriate intervention measures for “specific criminal risk factors, such as antisocial thinking.”

However, to avoid a “return to the days of ‘nothing works,” wherein policymakers give up on the goal of a functional and realistic answer to the problems in the correctional system, the suggested policy changes like re-allocation of resources based on evidence-based programs must receive both political and fiscal support to succeed, wrote Peggy McGarry, the Center’s director.

Vera Graph


Richard Ross Brings Photographs, Message to NYC’s Vera Institute of Justice

Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.
Richard Ross speaking at the Vera Institute of Justice.

NEW YORK - Photographer Richard Ross can’t pin down the moment he found his calling.

It could have been on the concrete floor of the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center in Biloxi, Miss., where he sat photographing a 12-year-old inmate in a yellow prison jumpsuit as he gazed at graffiti of spaceships and aliens scribbled on the wall of his tiny, decrepit cell.

Maybe it was the young inmates trying to sleep on the floor of the intake room of a Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. Or the facility for young female offenders in California where the administrator told him all 88 residents were victims of sexual abuse.

It could have been his visit with Ronald Franklin, who ran away from home at 13 after his mother tried to kill him, got involved in an armed carjacking and ended up in a Miami juvenile detention center where he waited four years without a trial.

Somewhere in Ross’ travels chronicling the conditions of boys and girls in prison it happened.

new york logo 01“I can’t remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment, but at some point you find something that means more to you than a lot of other things you’ve done in the past and you know you can’t go back,” Ross said in an interview this week as he visited New York to mark the opening of an exhibit of his photographs at the Ronald Feldman Galleryin SoHo and to give a talk on his work at the Vera Institute of Justice in lower Manhattan.

Over five years, Ross, a longtime art professor at UC Santa Barbara, photographed and interviewed more than 1,000 juveniles incarcerated across the country as part of his “Juvenile In Justice” project. Each story has it own grim details, and for Ross it adds up to a stinging indictment of this country’s juvenile justice system.

Each night some 70,000 juveniles, a disproportionate number of them minorities, are incarcerated in America, where the rate of juvenile incarceration far outstrips that of other developed nations. To Ross and other advocates, the far majority of these kids, often the victims of abuse and violence, were in the wrong place at the wrong time and have no business in facilities that resemble the jails for hardened criminals.

Ross, 65, hopes his photos, which he calls a “visual data bank,” will get policymakers to reform the juvenile justice system away from punishment, isolation and detention and toward the type of rehabilitation and education he thinks could help these youths get their lives on track.

Ross called the work physically and emotionally “punishing,” but said he has no plans to stop.

“It’s a threshold you’ve passed and you’re not going to retreat from it,” he said. “I can’t just close the book and say I’m done, there’s too many lives at stake.”

An acclaimed artist who made his reputation shooting for major publications and the Getty Museum, Ross said he understands the power of images to shape public opinion and drive policy. He said the iconic 1972 photo of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girls running down the street naked and screaming after a napalm attack changed his life, and that’s where he’s the set bar for his photos of incarcerated youth.

Ross, who grew up in Brooklyn the son of a New York City cop, visited more than 200 juvenile detention facilities in 31 states for the project that became Juvenile In Justice. He published a book of his photographs, with an essay by Ira Glass and excerpts of interviews he did with the subjects. An exhibit of his work opened in Paris last June and landed in New York this month after stops around the country.

Although some artists avoid connecting their work to overt political statements, leaving any hard and fast conclusions to the audience, Ross takes a different tact.

“I’m trying to have a viewer look at that and basically realize this is not a place for kids,” Ross said. “Teenagers are by definition dysfunctional. They make mistakes. Then they’re put in rooms that are 8x10 concrete? How is that going to change them or help society?”

About 100 people turned up Wednesday night to hear Ross speak at the Vera Institute, which has its office on the 12th floor of the Woolworth Building. Fit at 65, with an angular face and gray hair going white at the edges, there’s still a little bit of Flatbush in Ross’ voice, despite more than three decades in California.

Ross’ father was a cop in the 70th precinct for several years, but was forced to leave the force because of a gambling and bribery scandal involving Harry Gross, a major bookmaker based in Brooklyn. Ross, whose father took him to museums around the city and often dropped him at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday mornings, recalls those days as a time when “Brooklyn was truly hip” and said growing up as the son of a police officer influenced his work.

“We’re still doing things to please our parents,” Ross said. “That never changes.”

Ross said that of the 70,000 or so juveniles in custody across the country on any given night, only about 12 percent are there for violent offenses. He said that some kids are “sociopaths who you should be scared of,” but that the number of children caught up in bad circumstances, or who don’t belong in a prison, far outweighs the truly hard cases.

“Mostly they’re just people you’re pissed off at,” Ross said during his Vera talk. “You have to look at these kids as being victims, for the most part.”

Despite the draining toll of constantly interacting with incarcerated young people, Ross plans to push ahead with his project, saying he feels a bit like Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone in Godfather III, referencing his notorious line from that movie: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

He’ll shoot in California next week, and has plans to visit juvenile facilities in Kansas and New Mexico in coming months.

Many of Ross’ images, projected on a screen in the front of nearly a packed conference room as he described his work, elicited gasps from the crowd Wednesday night. The strongest reaction came from the startling juxtaposition of two jail cells, both concrete and unadorned. One picture was taken at a youth facility in El Paso, Texas, and another at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The rooms were strikingly similar, with a key difference: there was a window in the room at the jail in Cuba.

This story was produced by JJIE’s New York City Bureau.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

“Crossover Youth”: The Intersection of Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice

Crossover youth is more than the latest buzzword in the often jargon-filled lexicon of juvenile justice. Instead, the term reflects a growing understanding of the dynamic between child abuse, neglect and delinquency. This population of young people has contact with both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Addressing child welfare is challenging enough, let alone when joined with deeper problems of delinquency. Abused young people often carry scars of trauma and pain, which can inform delinquent behavior that leads to subsequent contact with the juvenile justice system. However, the complex challenges and needs of crossover youth often prove too much for each system alone to address. Practitioners must find a reasonable solution that ameliorates these issues or crossover youth may re-enter the child welfare system or go on to commit more serious offenses. Instead, an integrated approach, which builds on each system’s unique strength, is the ideal approach.

Who are these young people?

The exact number is unknown, given the absence of rigorous data collection, although estimates range from 9 percent to 29 percent of those in the child welfare system. A recent webinar, by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), detailed how a majority of these young people suffer from wide-ranging challenges, which include education difficulties, mental health issues and sexual abuse.

Another major contributing factor is that many suffer from placement instability. A recent study of dually involved youth in LA County found that 55 percent had been relocated between group homes and foster care placements three or more times during their lifetimes.

Why do crossover youth matter?

The crossover population represents a unique challenge for both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. A 2001 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the likelihood of detention for foster youth awaiting trial for misdemeanors or minor felonies was 10 percent higher than non-foster care youth. Moreover, they frequently suffer amid a compartmentalization of system care and oversight. For example, juveniles who make contact with the justice system may lose access to welfare services and their respective case manager, resulting in a disruption to their therapeutic services.

The long-term consequences for crossover youth are significant with many suffering higher incidence of drug use and exacerbated mental illness. The aforementioned study of LA County also found that crossover youth have a higher recidivism rate than non-crossover youth, and more than 30 percent have new maltreatment referrals following their arrest. These young people may not only commit offenses as adults, but may well perpetuate the cycle of maltreatment as parents.

What can be done?

Fortunately, juvenile justice professionals are increasingly recognizing the unique situation of crossover youth and are developing system tools sensitive to the specifics of their problem. Law enforcement officials, judges, and child welfare practitioners are beginning to collaborate on how to best meet the needs of this unique population early enough to offset the substantial human and fiscal cost. In addition, reform-minded foundations and non-profits have initiated pilot technical assistance programs across the country, in the hopes of creating replicable best practices. The recent OJDDP webinar featured speakers advocating for multi-disciplinary teams to bridge the system-wide gap, an approach shared by others.

For example, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, at Georgetown University, developed The Crossover Youth Practice Model, which is currently used at 11 jurisdictions across the country. A central feature of the model is to encourage multi-agency collaboration across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Such coordinated case management and supervision fosters family engagement and youth permanency. This directly addresses the instability that leads many young people from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system. In California, the Sierra Health Foundation, through their Positive Youth Justice Initiative, has also taken a lead in fostering county-level innovation to address this issue.

In the complicated world of juvenile justice, there is not always a clear distinction between young people in the child welfare system and those in the juvenile justice system. Abused and neglected young people come into contact with the justice system due to any number of contributing factors.  For each system to work best, they must first understand whom crossover youth are and develop necessary treatment and support models. This requires child welfare and juvenile justice departments to collaborate on best practices, streamlined case management and more effective data collection.

Such partnerships bring a sense of stability and continuity of care that crossover youth so often lack. Moreover, this represents a promising development in juvenile justice, where youth are recognized for their potential to succeed beyond a history of neglect and abuse.

Brian Goldstein is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ)'s policy team and a Masters graduate in political science from San Francisco State University.  His expertise is on political trends in criminal justice reform.

Nonprofits Leverage Goldman Sachs for Detention Programs

A set of New York City nonprofits are working together to keep Rikers Island juvenile detention center residents from returning, and are using money from investment banker Goldman Sachs to do it.

About half of the 16- to 18- year-old males who pass through Rikers Island will return within a year, according to David Butler, who’s heading the team working on the project at nonprofit social research organization MDRC.  “Anything we can do to change that is good,” he said.

MDRC will oversee the ABLE program, which will be mandatory for the young men at Rikers by the time it is fully rolled out in January 2013 for a four-year run. The Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience is a method of teaching things like personal responsibility, anger management and impulse control with the aim of restructuring the student’s way of thinking.

And it could not have been deployed on the Rikers scale, perhaps 3,400 students annually, without the cash Goldman Sachs agreed to provide.

The investment bank is putting $9.6 million into a so-called social impact bond to put MDRC to work at Rikers. An SIB is a new type of investment that grows only if some public good is achieved and shrinks if it doesn’t. The model comes from the United Kingdom and the New York City rollout is among the first stateside and something of a pilot program.

If MDRC fails to cut the recidivism rate, the value of Goldman’s payout falls. If MDRC succeeds, the investment grows.

The bank’s maximum return is capped at $2.1 million and its losses capped at $2.4 million. According to MDRC, the top payout would be triggered by a 20 percent fall in the Rikers recidivism rate.

At that level, New York City would save something like $20 million by MDRC’s math, savings from youth staying out of Rikers and trouble.

Once Goldman Sachs is repaid, any additional savings go into a social intervention fund administered by MDRC and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the vehicle for the charitable activities of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In fact, Bloomberg Philanthropies is also cushioning the risk to the bank by guaranteeing  $7.2 million of what’s technically a loan from Goldman Sachs to MDRC.

Yet if anything matches public disdain for jail, it’s suspicion of the honesty of anything to do with investment bankers.

“We understand that there are concerns about our connection with a bank,” said Butler, “but we are comfortable with that.”

He pointed to the long records of other nonprofit partners in the venture. The Friends of the Island Academy — dating from when the island’s school went by that name — and the 80-year-old prison-reforming Osborne Association will actually deliver the services to the youth.  And the Vera Institute of Justice handles the metrics that decide Goldman Sachs’ payout.

“The SIB structure only works if your evaluator is independent,” noted Reagan Daly, associate research director for the Center on Youth Justice at Vera. “We’re keeping that distance, independence and objectivity.”

Vera matches research, innovation, ideas and data about justice and safety to public leaders.

Daly explained that Vera’s calculations are more nuanced than whether a young man simply returns to Rikers or not.

“If they don’t come back at all, that’s obviously a success,” she said, “but if they return, it’s how much they stay there.”

And an inmate that goes through the MDRC program has to be measured against a comparable inmate, too, she noted.

The math “does take into account a kid’s individual factors,” like arrest rate, court history and other things, she said.

“We’ll control for those things” to get an accurate calculation, Daly said.

Vera Institute Report: American Taxpayers Spent Nearly $39 Billion Last Year on Incarceration

Last week, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit released a new report entitled The Price of Prison: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.

The report analyzed data from 40 states, estimating the total price American taxpayers paid in 2010 to fund corrections budgets, employee benefits, capital costs and healthcare services for inmates.

The study projects that taxpayers paid almost $39 billion in the 2010 FY, which was more than $5 billion more than what the official corrections budgets originally projected.

According to the report, Americans paid almost $2 billion to fund retiree health care programs for corrections employees, with another $1.5 billion going to fund state contributions to retiree health care and employee benefits, including health insurance.

The report also factored in a number of other costs outside state corrections’ budgets that were funded by public dollars, including inmate services, legal judgments and claims, private facility costs and overlapping statewide administrative costs.

According to the report, 21 of the 40 state surveyed did not pay the full cost of annual pension contributions to corrections personnel in the 2010 FY, while 30 did not pay the full cost of retiree health care obligations.

The report notes that the percentage of prison costs outside individual state’s corrections budgets fluctuated, with Arizona and Connecticut at 1 percent and 34 percent, respectively, representing the polar ends of the 40 states surveyed.

The study, which was produced in coordination with the Pew Center on the State’s Public Safety Performance Project, stated that the average per-inmate cost for American taxpayers was a little more than $31,000 annually, with Kentucky ($14,603) and New York ($60,076) having  the lowest and highest 2010 FY numbers.

“Perhaps more than ever, it is necessary to know the real price of our choices, be those in education, health care or criminal justice policies,” said Center on Sentencing and Corrections Director Peggy McGarry.

“Knowing the taxpayer cost of any public policy option is important – especially now,” she continued. “But it is just as important to examine and weigh those costs against the benefits they promise to deliver.”