Beyond Incarceration


Eduardo Rufino isn’t likely to forget the day of his last arrest. He calls that winter day in 1992, when he was busted for peddling heroin in a TNT sweep of Borough Park, the turning point of his life–the culmination of years of run-ins with the law over petty crimes and street dealing that began in his teens. Still, some of the details are hazy. The problem, says Rufino, is that he was “so blasted”–he’d been feeding ferocious addictions to crack and heroin for several years–that he didn’t even notice the undercover cop buying from him was the same officer who’d busted him for selling just months before on the same corner.

At that point, Rufino’s future looked grim. As a second-time felony drug offender, he faced years of mandatory prison time under the Rockefeller drug laws. And as a half-dozen previous jail stints over as many years had proven, about the only thing prison promised was more training in the art of low-level drug dealing.

But then Rufino caught a break. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office offered him a deal: complete a two-year drug treatment program rather than go to prison. In the meantime, to get around the drug laws, prosecutors would keep his charges “pending” and dismiss them if he completed the program.

Not surprisingly, Rufino took the offer, and figured he’d “beat the system.” He remembers thinking, “When I get out, I’m going to do the fattest bag.” But the treatment turned out to be “damn serious,” so arduous that Rufino thought constantly of quitting. Still, he stuck with it, graduated, and has stayed clean ever since. Indeed, Rufino now works as a substance-abuse counselor with the city’s largest alternative-to-incarceration program, and has become a herald of the ATI movement, appearing on platforms with Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes, shooting a documentary with Joseph Califano, and telling all who will listen that “these programs saved my life.”

Rufino’s message has seemingly never been more popular. Hynes has led a growing list of prosecutors who have bemoaned what he calls the “madness of putting nonviolent drug offenders in jail.” New York’s chief judge, Judith S. Kaye, has extolled ATIs. And when a new city Special Narcotics Prosecutor, Bridget Brennan, was named last week, she called for drug treatment for addicted offenders before they end up in prison.

In a sense, ATI advocates feel the case for their programs has been made. The small Brooklyn D.A.’s program that gave Rufino a shot at treatment, for example, boasts an exceptionally high retention rate and low rearrest rate. At the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), where Rufino counsels young people in a six-month program for felony offenders, only 31 per cent get rearrested. More than half of all state inmates end up back in prison in five years.

The programs save money as well. Each drug treatment bed costs about $16,000 per year, while one prison bed runs around $30,000. And that’s not counting the huge expense of building prisons, which cost $100,000 per cell.

Despite all this, though, the ATI movement remains stalled, stymied by New York’s harsh and inflexible drug laws, lack of resources, and political cowardice. Indeed, ATIs remain a “tiny appendage on the ever-growing beast of the prison system,” says JoAnne Page, executive director of the Fortune Society, which runs several ATIs. And, she adds, mandatory sentencing laws leave “an overwhelming percentage of people unreachable.”

Judge Alvin Schlesinger, who retired from New York’s state supreme court in 1996, was known as a tough but fair judge during his 23 years in the state courts, but he came to feel “totally hamstrung by the laws. That’s one of the reasons I quit.” A survey of 400 criminal judges statewide found that 80 per cent would use alternatives to incarceration if they were available.

“The drug war is a war on the poor,” adds Schlesinger, “and it’s not solving a goddamn thing.” But “the people in Albany get harsher all the time.” Actually, George Pataki initially called for reform of the Rockefeller drug laws, but his budgets have repeatedly proposed cuts in funding for drug treatment, probation, and alternatives to incarceration. Similarly, Rudy Giuliani has cut funds for ATIs, though the money was restored by the City Council.

While ATIs starve, “resources are unlimited for incarceration,” says Page, “though we never talk about results with prisons.”

The prison boom has also meant a northern migration of both people and criminal-justice resources, from New York City’s poor communities–which provide some 77 per cent of all state inmates–to upstate towns riding the economic engine of imprisonment. Given the political economy of incarceration–and their sense that ATIs only promise “damage control” in a “system that’s fundamentally wrong,” as Page puts it–some leading ATI advocates have begun calling for a new approach to criminal- justice reform.

“The problem with our movement,” says Eric Cadora, director of policy at Rufino’s ATI, CASES, “is that we try to put right in an individual what the criminal-justice system does to a community.” Of course, liberal critics of incarceration have long argued that money “on the front end”–spending for schools and jobs–would be a more useful investment than back-end prison dollars. But Cadora and other advocates of “community justice” say the new approach goes farther, pouring criminal-justice resources into high-crime neighborhoods–and increasing community control over them. The result, says, Todd Clear, a professor at Florida State University and one of the country’s leading advocates of community justice, is that criminal justice–including punishment–becomes rooted in the communities where most crime happens.

The approach promises a more effective and humane system–after all, points out Clear, communities that suffer from high crime are also populated by people whose relatives are now being shipped upstate and warehoused. But the community-justice movement also puts antiprison local advocates in an unusual position–as potential jailers. As Clear puts it, “If you’re going to lock people up, lock them up in their communities. They’re close to their families, and it’s easier to transition them back into the neighborhood.” But, adds Clear, community justice would “involve a whole range of things that you do that you call justice”–including neighborhood-led policing, community courts, drug treatment, day reporting centers, jobs programs, and so on.

The point is to reinvent the criminal-justice system as a network of community institutions. And Clear says the movement is “exploding” across America. “In Vermont, a large number of sentences are doled out by community groups. In three counties in Oregon, the state gives back to the county an amount equal to the money that would have been spent on imprisonment, and that money is put into infrastructure.”

Here in New York, “crime-ridden communities are just beginning to have a voice in how we spend our criminal-justice dollar,” says Cadora. Later this year a community-justice center will open in Red Hook. Meanwhile, a small storefront operation called La Bodega de la Familia on the Lower East Side is trying to demonstrate how a community-based approach to drugs and crime might work here. The center works with the families of addicts, not just addicts themselves, and is molded to fit Loisaida and nowhere else. It’s a kind of program that Rufino, for one, wishes had been around when he was growing up. Three years after Rufino got clean, his older brother was deported to the Dominican Republic for selling. Rufino hasn’t seen him since.

Research: Maura Henniger