A better way to treat low-level criminals

A correctional facility. Photo Credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach

I don’t know anyone who believes a person should receive a life sentence for drug possession.

However, people with mental health illnesses or drug dependency too often cycle in and out of jail for years. This effectively amounts to a life sentence served a few days at a time.


City Hall, working with the district attorneys of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, wants to stop that revolving door.

Rather than jailing people who have committed misdemeanors for a few days, why not give judges the option to direct them to counseling, drug treatment, job programs or other services that might prevent future offenses? The need is there: There are roughly 8,600 jail admissions a year for people serving sentences of less than 30 days in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Many have been in jail multiple times, and many have drug problems or mental health issues. Also, the vast majority of people (97 percent) getting short sentences after pleading guilty at arraignment did so for misdemeanors. Most (90 percent) had at least one prior misdemeanor and more than two-thirds had six or more. Prior felony convictions were less common, suggesting these individuals are arrested repeatedly for minor offenses. If a few days in jail didn’t work the first time, why do we send them back again and again?

There’s a better way. Building on the success of jail-diversion programs, the city and prosecutors have initiated programs to serve these men and women. Prosecutors identify people who would benefit from services instead of incarceration.

The interventions serve as plea arrangements or judicial sentences. The offenders must attend the programs and, if they don’t, they end up serving the jail sentence they had avoided.

Everyone has a stake in this population. Repeat visits to the courts and jails consume enormous taxpayer resources. For personnel in the criminal justice system, these folks take away time from more serious crimes. But the greatest toll is imposed on these individuals and their families. A life spent between jail and the streets is hardly an existence most people would choose. That is why programs like these are so sorely needed.

Joel Copperman is the CEO of the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services, a nonprofit, and a member of NYC’s Justice Implementation Task Force’s working group on safely reducing size of the jail population.