Alternative to incarceration programs provide benefits but face funding hurdles

Send a woman to jail, remove her from the bonds of her children and family and it increases the chances she’ll be incarcerated again. Send a woman to jail and her children could be more likely to go eventually, too. It’s an invisible cycle happening to families nationwide.

But change is afoot. A growing awareness has emerged that society should reduce the dependence on already overcrowded jails and prisons and instead provide alternatives to incarceration (ATIs)—community-based, often gender-specific sentencing programs. The Fortune Society, JusticeHome and Drew House each offer programs geared to justice-involved people by offering wrap-around services such as parenting classes, job support, education and substance abuse and mental health counseling to address the underlying problems for why people commit crimes. The intent is to help people learn how to effectively live and work in their communities, care for their children and contribute back to society in lieu of serving time. Parents can continue the familial bonds often broken by time spent locked away.

ATIs were formed following the creation in the late 1980s of drug courts, which are meant to address the needs of substance abusers whose untreated addictions can lead to continued crime. In 2004, more than half of the people in state prison identified with having a drug dependence or abuse problem. However, just 15 percent were receiving professional treatment at the time, nonprofit group The Sentencing Project said in a 2009 report.

But not every criminal justice-involved person has a drug problem, and, as such, ATIs seek to address more than an individual’s substance abuse problem. ATI programs, however, often face hurdles because of fluctuations in city and state funding, experts interviewed said. As a result, ATI programs have expanded in fits and starts over the past several years.

Barry Headshot

Barry Campbell. Photo supplied by The Fortune Society

“ATI is the longest running pilot program in the history of the United States,” Barry Campbell, special assistant to JoAnne Page, President and CEO of The Fortune Society, softly joked. The ATI program run by The Fortune Society is not expanded enough and not updated adequately every year, Campbell said during a recent interview at his office in New York.

The Fortune Society, which specializes in supporting incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people through various programs, vies for a stretched pool of city money each year and has been hit with budget cuts, Campbell said. The 47-year-old nonprofit most recently laid off 20 people in early November.

Campbell said, however, that for every dollar spent on ATIs, $7 is saved from being spent inside the criminal justice system. The Fortune Society program saved New York taxpayers $1.1 million in 2013 and reduced the prison and jail population, according to the organization’s biennial report. The nonprofit had total public support and revenues of $22.3 million for the year ended Dec. 31, 2013, including $17.7 million from government funding and grants. Operating expenses totaled $21.6 million.

About 250 ATI participants—increasingly more and more women, Campbell noted—with an average age of 16 to 26 years old are going through rigorous roughly yearlong programs at The Fortune Society. Three separate ATI programs, one specific to women called Damas, meet daily from 10 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Participants meet with case managers and attend group sessions, take G.E.D. classes and receive employment services.


The entrance to The Fortune Society office in Long Island City, Queens, N.Y. Photo by Meredith Berg

Like most ATI programs, people join The Fortune Society ATI after negotiations with judges, lawyers and prosecutors, and usually are facing a year or more in jail or prison, said Campbell. It’s also rare that someone doesn’t complete the ATI program as prescribed. “There are some hard-core criminals who, no matter what is happening in their life, they’re not going to do” an ATI, said Campbell.

Funding isn’t the only hurdle facing ATIs, though. Such programs require a massive shift in how judges and prosecutors approach sentencing. The Women’s Prison Association and its caseworkers, for instance, spent nine months visiting judges and district attorneys in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan about how its JusticeHome women’s ATI program works. JusticeHome launched 18 months ago. Georgia Lerner, executive director of the WPA, stressed that the concept was “so foreign to judges and district attorneys” that people would be allowed home without electronic devices monitoring their every step.

“ATI isn’t about preventing people from getting punished,” Lerner said during a recent interview in New York. JusticeHome allows women facing at least six months in jail or prison for a felony conviction to instead live in their communities while, similar to The Fortune Society, attending group meetings, classes, counseling, and having random drug tests and in-home visits from caseworkers. “The best thing we can do is try to help people manage their real lives in a real way,” she said.

In fact, Lerner said being out in the community can be harder than serving jail or prison time, despite the demeaning treatment that often accompanies life behind bars. “In prison, somebody tells you who are you are—that you’re nothing, that you can’t think,” she said. “But we tell you that you have to be responsible. We respect people, and we really try to help people take stock and really do the harder internal work. It’s likely to be more painful and difficult, but it helps people become whole in a way that frees them to be able to move forward.”


WPA Executive Director Georgia Lerner. Photo supplied by WPA

ATIs have been shown by the Vera Institute for Justice not to significantly increase the public safety risk. A 2002 Vera Institute report placed the three-year reconviction rate for people who completed an ATI between January 1998 to May 2001 at 34 percent versus 32 percent for a control group; the reconviction rate for ATI women alone came in much lower at 20 percent, though women generally reconvict at lower rates than men; the study did not provide a woman-only control group. Researchers followed the progress of 318 people in nine New York City ATIs for the time period.

Though many women who commit crimes have substance abuse problems, most women are not breaking the law because of addiction, Lerner said. “That’s the crime, but, usually, they have untreated trauma. And they have mental illness or they have active psychotic symptoms. They have parental stress. They have antisocial relationships, usually with a romantic partner—often it’s a man. They have true economic stresses and poor educational achievement,” Lerner explained. “Most of those things are not things that we can address in prison.”


The entrance to the WPA at its East Village headquarters in New York. Photo by Meredith Berg

JusticeHome is funded in part via a 27-month $977,000 contract with the New York City Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator; 14 women so far have graduated from the program. Three years ago, however, the WPA closed a long-running residential ATI program called Hopper Home due to dwindling funding. (View a photo slideshow about Hopper Home.) Recidivism rates for that program were promising: less than 5 percent for women two years later, according to Lerner.

ATIs for women are of particular interest because 75 to 80 percent of women in prison or jail are mothers, and they are typically the main caregivers for their children. The majority of women are nonviolent offenders convicted of property crimes and drug-related offenses. Women are also the fastest-growing group of people being sent to prison or jail. The federal prison rate for women rose 3 percent year over year in 2013 versus an increase of just 0.2 percent for men, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics information released in late September.

Criminal justice-involved women are often substance abusers and have mental health issues. Yet because of their small quantity—nationwide just 111,000 women were incarcerated among the 1.6 million total people being held in state or federal institutions as of Dec. 31, 2013, per BJS data—women are invisible. Women “are easy to forget because they’re not out there raping anyone,” said Teresa Fabi, the Kings County district attorney who helped found the ATI Drew House in Brooklyn in 2008. Men “get all the attention, without any kind of thought as to let’s think about the fact that women are the ones having the babies.”

Women who take part in Drew House agree to plead guilty to their charges, said Rita Zimmer, co-founder and executive director of Housing + Solutions, a New York-based nonprofit that runs Drew House and provides a variety of other transitional and permanent housing services. Judges sentence women but set aside the sentence so they can take part in the residential ATI. If they complete all the program requirements, typically in about 15 months, the judge will eventually set aside the conviction, too, and it may not get added to the permanent record.

Drew House, a renovated apartment building in Brooklyn, houses six women and up to three of their minor children. The women are first-time offenders. Similar to the JusticeHome model, “We do the interventions that give her the opportunity and the time to resolve things that could potentially get her in trouble again,” said Zimmer in an interview.

A study by two nurses from Columbia University in 2011 found that Drew House is “unique” and that residents effectively completed court mandates and eventually transitioned to independent living.

Drew House received mostly private funding, said Zimmer, with some public money. It costs $35,000 a year to house one family in Drew House, versus the $135,000 foster care would cost for the children. But the women living in Drew House right now are in a holding pattern as the program awaits more funding, the founders said. The families can’t move out, because they have nowhere to go, and Zimmer won’t allow them to leave without concrete future housing in place.

Future funding for more Drew House style apartments is a challenge because “this type of program is truly a first-of-its-kind, so there was/is no existing funding stream that addresses it,” Fabi said in an email. “Creating a brand new funding stream is a very difficult thing to do, for a myriad of reasons. We simply don’t fit into an already existing niche.”

Featured image by Snuvnia (Own work) CC-BY-SA-4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Alternative to incarceration programs provide benefits but face funding hurdles

  1. Pingback: Video: Alternatives to Incarceration | Susan Sered

  2. Pingback: Alternatives to …. what? | Sentencing, alternatively

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