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A Solution Grows in Brooklyn

BY: CHARLIE PAYNE

When Mark Hunter returned to civilian life after his fifth round of prison, he knew he needed change. He wanted to say good-bye to the cycle of prison, drugs, and burglary—a lifestyle that, simply, wasn’t working. But with little support structure in place for those reentering public life, what’s a 40-year-old with a two-decade prison record to do?

“I wanted a change,” says Hunter. “But the mechanics of life outside prison made it impossible.”

Everything turned around for Hunter when he found The Doe Fund, a non-profit organization that provides job opportunities for unemployed individuals in New York City. Founded in 1985, the organization has grown from a small group feeding homeless people in Grand Central Station to a full-service provider of everything from housing to advocacy work.

In Hunter’s case, The Doe Fund, through its Ready, Willing, and Able transitional employment program, provided him with the means for a new life: a job earning a $200 weekly stipend and meals. And with this income, came a renewed sense of confidence.

“There is a difference between having an idea of what you’re capable of doing and actually having the experience to build a resume,” adds Hunter, who since graduating from the program 4 years ago has been working for a not-for-profit full-service mailing facility, Back Office of New York. “What’s so unique about the Ready, Willing, and Able program is that you come with a clean slate, and that’s what I’m judged upon, not my criminal record.”

Although this novel approach to prisoner reentry is starting to gain ground across New York City, the idea is not new in Brooklyn.  Since taking office in 1989, District Attorney Charles Hynes remains an active proponent of reentry programs, like Ready, Willing, and Able, as a viable means to reduce recidivism.

“Reentry is the most important criminal justice issue we face,” said Hynes at a Roundtable Reentry meeting last November. “Putting people back into prison is, simply, morally indefensible.”

Unlike studies that show two-thirds of all incarcerated people reentering civilian life return to prison within three years, the success rates coming out of transitional employment programs tell a completely different story.

“When we look at the graduates of our program, we are finding a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent, compared to a national average of 45 percent,” says Lee Alman, Director of Public Affairs at The Doe Fund. “They are staying out of the criminal justice system.”

According to Hynes, joint programs overall that incorporate both treatment and employment for newly released prisoners have the effect of “reducing recidivism to mere fractions.” In 1999, Hynes created the city’s first significant prisoner reentry program, named “Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together,” and partnered with The Doe Fund to provide these employment opportunities.

Participants of ComALERT undergo a several-step process before the program begins. First, they must report to the Division of Parole within 24 hours of their release.  From there, a ComALERT counselor interviews the parolees and makes a psychosocial assessment regarding the individual’s past and future goals. If he or she meets the requirements, the individual then attends a program orientation at ComALERT’s Counseling Center in downtown Brooklyn and is assigned to a social worker to help comply with the conditional release requirements. These requirements involve not only work review, but counseling sessions and weekly drug testing. In some cases, housing is also provided. Failure to pass a drug test or cooperate in the workplace results in the immediate attention of the individual’s parole officer. The program has the capacity to fill 1,200 spots, and roughly half of those spots are currently filled, according to Hynes’ office.

So far the Brooklyn model seems to be working. As the city has seen a huge rise in drug cases since Paterson’s historic reforms this past April, they have, in Hynes’ words, “hardly made a ripple in Brooklyn,” because of treatment programs like ComALERT that have been in place for several years now.

And the savings have been significant. A study conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2004 found that the economic cost of drug abuse nationwide is $180 billion, and roughly 60 percent are crime-related costs (i.e., court costs, law enforcement, etc.).  Furthermore, it costs $187 a day to incarcerate someone in the New York penal system. According to Hynes, it costs New York taxpayers $10 a day to put an offender through treatment programs like ComALERT.

Brooklyn’s ComALERT has been embraced by the social work and legal community as a step in the right direction. Still, some advocates caution that such programs will remain only a small step as long as overall systemic challenges are not addressed.

“This over-reliance on the past thirty years of mass incarceration has not made you or I or any of us safer,” says Robin McGintey, a counselor with Project Path to Recovery, an organization that helps parolees readjust back into civilian life. “The idea is how to right an original wrong. And if we’re not talking about education in terms of building community infrastructure, and so on and so forth, then we’re not having a great conversation.”

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