New York City wants to reduce its jail population to do that the city has a bold idea that could be modeled nationwide: Do away with all jail sentences of less than a month, according to Governing.
That's the idea behind newSTART, a jail diversion program launched in New York last month. It keeps defendants who have committed low-level misdemeanors -- things like petty larceny or possession of small amounts of illegal drugs -- from entering jail. It would also apply to people convicted of thefts of service, such as jumping a subway turnstile or exiting a taxi without paying.
Instead, in exchange for a guilty plea, misdemeanor defendants can opt for one or more social service programs, including drug treatment, job training and mental health counseling.
“We are hopeful that the program will stop the return to jail and [create] a virtuous circle,” says Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
Right now, the program is limited to defendants who have been sentenced to up to 10 days in jail. If it's successful, it will be expanded to those convicted of crimes carrying sentences up to 30 days.
But not all defendants who fit that time frame will be eligible.
The program specifically targets defendants in need of social services and those who have been repeatedly arrested for similar crimes. Almost three-quarters of those facing short-term sentences are unemployed, and more than 40 percent are homeless, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
NewSTART is seen as an improvement from previous jail diversion programs. In the past, defendants who opted for jail diversion ran the risk of serving more time than their initial sentence if they failed to complete the diversion program. For example, a person could escape a five-day jail sentence by opting for a diversion program -- but then end up sentenced to 30 days in jail if they failed to complete that diversion program.
That undermined the point of the diversion program, says Jennifer Scaife, executive director of Prevention, Diversion, & Reintegration for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. “People were opting for jail instead of services, which didn’t stop the cycle of going to jail repeatedly.”
Under the new plan, the city will recommend that those who fail to complete the program be sentenced to no longer than 15 days in jail. Final discretion for sentencing, however, remains with judges.
Proponents of sentencing reform have pointed to the economic and social disruptions that even a short stay in jail can impose on poor and at-risk populations.
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