IMPACT: The Research Magazine for John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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How evidence-based approaches to justice are improving the well-being ofNew York’s communities


Centers: Prisoner Reentry Institute, Research and Evaluation Center, From Punishment to Public Health, Data Collaborative for Justice

Author: Michael Friedrich


When Ann Jacobs learned that formerly incarcerated people were being excluded from public housing, she decided that the Prisoner Reentry Institute, the organization she directs, should get involved. “Housing is foundational,” said Jacobs. “Unless people are successfully housed, they’re not able to do the other things that they want to do in reentry, like get and keep a job, go to school, or reunify with their families.”

PRI convened a work group of local stakeholders to advocate for changes to the exclusion policy. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), which administers public housing, has a long-standing policy of seeking to evict or exclude residents who are arrested. Residents could apply to have an exclusion lifted, but the application was confusing and they often didn’t know it existed. Together, PRI and the work group, now led by PRI’s Director of Public Policy Alison Wilkey, helped NYCHA create a clearer application to lift permanent exclusions, helped draft new guidelines about limiting the use of exclusions, and made sure tenants are informed of the policy. As a result, the number of people excluded declined by more than 50 percent from 2016 to 2018.
PRI is just one of the research centers at John Jay College driving real-world policy reform that makes New York’s communities stronger and more just. Policymakers are eager for new solutions that will better the system, but they don’t arise from nowhere. John Jay’s research centers provide evidence-based partnerships and guidance that city officials and state legislators need to create better policy.

Since 2005, PRI has been dedicated to helping people live successfully in their communities after contact with the criminal justice system. “When people come out of incarceration, they basically need to construct a whole life for themselves,” said Jacobs. The center engages in a combination of public advocacy, direct service and collaborative partnerships to promote a range of reentry practices, with a focus on creating pathways from justice involvement to education and career advancement.

In addition to its work with NYCHA, PRI advocates for higher education in prison—priming what they like to call the prison-to-college pipeline. One tool they recently produced to influence policy in that area is a report that maps the landscape of higher education in New York State prisons. Surveying 15 college programs across 26 facilities, PRI found that only 3 percent of the 47,500 people in New York State prisons were participating in higher education programs, despite recently expanded funding.
The idea of the report, said Jacobs, is to provide a reference point for policymakers so PRI can promote the expansion of education programs that contribute to the growth and well-being of returning citizens.

At the Research and Evaluation Center, a team of researchers is evaluating New York City-based programs and policies. One high-profile project has been their work measuring the impact of Cure Violence, a public health approach to violence reduction. The program relies on neighborhood-based workers, often with a history of justice involvement, to develop relationships with the people most likely to be involved in violence, mediate and offer supportive services. It explicitly avoids using state authority and the threat of punishment.

“The ideal Cure Violence worker is someone who is old enough to know better, who has been down the road of gang involvement, maybe did some time in prison,” said Dr. Jeff Butts, director of REC. “Now they’re home and wanting to work with younger people in the neighborhood to keep them from following the same path.” Often, said Butts, they have information about potential violence much earlier than authorities, and can help reinforce community norms against violence.

“Politically, it’s a difficult program to operate,” said Butts, since city officials are often wary of the neighborhood workers’ criminal histories. But REC’s research makes a strong case for its effectiveness in the South Bronx and Brooklyn. When weighed against comparison sites in other neighborhoods, Cure Violence areas see greater violence reductions. That translates not just to saved lives but also lower social costs, which has helped get policymakers on board. “There’s enough of an effect to say that it’s a worthwhile program.”

Butts says that explaining this research clearly to the public is key to shifting policy. “You can’t change policy, no matter how smart you are, just by publishing articles in academic journals and hoping that someone reads them one day.”

A research team member conducting an interview for the REC NYC Cure Violence Evaluation project.

Violence isn’t the only kind of crime that can be reduced with less punitive solutions. With his research project From Punishment to Public Health (P2PH), Director Jeff Coots is driving an agenda to increase the use of public health interventions across the system. Their work involves getting people from different sectors—government, law enforcement, community leaders, social workers—in the same room to talk about the problems they face. “Punishment alone is not getting us the public safety outcomes we want,” said Coots. “How do we identify public-health-style solutions that can respond where punishment does not, and isolation will not?”

P2PH holds that alternatives to incarceration can not only reduce the use of prison and jail terms but also offer rehabilitative services to people in need. Among the center’s signature initiatives is a pilot project to use pre-arrest diversion for minor offenses committed by the homeless, especially those arrested for seeking shelter in New York City subway trains and stations overnight. Many of those cases were previously decided at arraignment, denying arrestees the chance to connect with services. The pilot has made diversion the “new normal”, reducing the number of people arrested and increasing the number connected with services like transitional housing and health treatment.

In general, Coots said, policymakers are more open now to health interventions in place of criminal justice solutions. “I think even just in the last 10 years a lot of people are saying we need to shrink the criminal justice system, we need to have fewer people in prison, we don’t want the jail to be the biggest mental health provider in our community,” he said.

Data Collaborative for Justice is similarly invested in documenting the scale of the criminal justice footprint and considering solutions to reduce it. Founded in 2013 by Dr. Preeti Chauhan and former John Jay College President Jeremy Travis as the Misdemeanor Justice Project, DCJ began by producing reports on New York City’s misdemeanor arrests and summonses and their impact on communities.

Today, DCJ has expanded its scope beyond misdemeanors to explore other high-contact points in the system, including pretrial detention and incarceration in New York City jails. “Policy neutrality is an important part of DCJ’s mission and outlook,” said Project Director Dr. Kerry Mulligan. “That has allowed us to be a trusted broker with a diverse set of data partners.” In other words, DCJ does not make policy recommendations. Instead, they work closely with city and state agencies to gather an array of data and help make sense of it for policymakers, who can then make evidence-informed decisions.

A major project for the center has been to produce an evaluation of the landmark Criminal Justice Reform Act, passed by the New York City Council in 2016 to “create more proportional penalties for certain low-level, nonviolent offenses.” The CJRA has been important in drawing down enforcement on five high-volume offenses—public consumption of alcohol, public urination, violation of park rules, littering and noise violations—that made up half of all offenses in the city. In the past, these resulted in bench warrants and often, if the offender didn’t appear in court, arrests.

With support from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, DCJ is measuring the impact of the legislation, and it appears to be achieving its aims. “Things are working as we would expect,” said Mulligan. “The vast majority of summonses for these behaviors—like 90 percent—are now issued as civil rather than criminal summonses, and we see an associated decline in criminal warrants.”

This legislation has a positive impact on New York City communities and saves resources. It has the potential to push policy changes in other areas by informing conversations with lawmakers about whether similar shifts could help with other offenses. Mulligan believes such changes could further improve the city’s justice process. “We know that even very minor contact with the criminal justice system—a custodial arrest—can have significant impact on people’s lives,” said Mulligan. “So getting it right from the onset is important work.”

Throughout John Jay College, some researchers are building the evidence base, while other centers are rolling up their sleeves to help cities implement and evaluate solutions on the ground. In each case, the vital goal is making communities safer.

Butts, like many of the centers’ directors, believes that good policy will result from measuring the effects of practices that go beyond law enforcement alone. “Unless we can build stronger neighborhood organizations and bring resources into the community that help reduce crime and violence, policymakers will see policing as the only solution to crime,” he said. “You have to put that evidence in front of them on a regular basis in order to get the political culture to start to shift.” JJ

Movie still: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

First Sidebar Photo: Courtesy of the Research and Evaluation

Center Second Sidebar Photo: Amber Gray, courtesy of the Prisoner Reentry Institute

John Jay Professor Jessica Gordon Nembhard teaching at Otisville Correctional Facility.