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Opinions & observations: Alternatives to Incarceration programs alone won’t fix a broken criminal justice system

NYC must invest in communities, not in reactive punishments

November 18, 2020 Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services
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Amidst calls to divest from policing and invest in communities, the mayor has announced his office’s plan to spend millions of dollars on Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) programs. While these programs are excellent service providers and we support increased focus on diversion programs insofar as they are preferable to time in jail or prison, this model continues to reflect a misplaced reliance on the criminal punishment system — from policing to post-conviction programs — to solve issues facing our communities.

As public defenders, our power within this system is often limited. We are familiar with helping people we represent choose the least harmful option when faced with choices such as plea deals involving incarceration or taking a case to trial, sometimes under threat of mandatory minimum sentences. Factors such as harsh sentencing rules, which forbid the exercise of judicial discretion or consideration of a person’s unique circumstances, and a systemic culture of punitive and reactive responses to people charged with crimes create coercive and dehumanizing conditions within which a person must negotiate for their liberty.

However, touting post-arrest programs, which people enter under threat of prison or jail, as a solution to incarceration misses the glaring truth: Front-end investments should be made in our communities instead of punishment and policing. The more we invest in the punishment system, even with more humane options than incarceration, the further we get from creating a justice system that is truly just and fair.

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The mayor’s plan reinforces the unacceptable status quo by presenting itself as a solution to incarceration without addressing fundamental problems with the current system. Data and experience demonstrate that people are selectively policed based on their race and their neighborhood. Further investments in the current system legitimize and perpetuate this abuse. In addition, the current system ties programs and resources that could otherwise be valuable to our community to arrest and prosecution, further entrenching the punishment system.

Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services. Photo: Caroline Ourso/Brooklyn Eagle

Post-arrest programs also mandate onerous conditions and constant state surveillance, including for people whose cases might not have otherwise involved terms of incarceration. These conditions may result in incarceration for non-compliance and interfere with other obligations in a person’s life — ultimately curtailing their freedom rather than protecting it.

In this time of unprecedented unemployment and cuts from already underfunded systems such as education and transportation, we should instead demand divestment from the NYPD and other systems of punishment and oppression. If the goal is safe and stable communities, investments in post-arrest programs within the criminal punishment system are houses built on quicksand.

We should invest our resources in our communities, particularly those that have borne the harm of racist and classist systems of policing and incarceration for decades. Money spent reinforcing the myth that the criminal legal system can solve systemic issues is being siphoned away from people and neighborhoods in need of investment in schools, parks, jobs, healthcare, mental wellbeing, nutritious food, and community initiatives. It’s time to invest in the people of New York City.

Lisa Schreibersdorf is executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services and a former president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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1 Comment

  1. Brooklyn11209

    Why doesn’t she mention the victims of the crimes? How about the damage to the victims lives? The author does not seem to care about them.

    No one should but punished unfairly but the punishment should be consisent with the crime and also strive to keep the victims and others citizens safe from criminals.