Breaking the vicious cycle

Pilot program could route sex workers, low-level offenders to case managers rather than jail

Thursday August 6, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Marilynn Winn could not hold down a job after serving a 16-month jail sentence in her teens for shoplifting. The 69-year-old criminal justice advocate, who has worked 18 jobs over the course of her life, would lie on job applications to get a foot in the door. When her supervisor learned the truth, she was let go.

Had Winn instead been routed to a case manager who could help the Atlanta native get her life back on track rather than to a jail cell, she says, her life might have turned out differently.

"If this type of program had been around during the time I was in and out of the justice system, I don't think I'd have been in and out of the system," Winn says.

Atlanta, which as recently as 2013 considered banishing sex workers from certain parts of the city, might soon offer such an option called pre-arrest diversion. The program offers case-management services to low-level offenders in place of jail time. By doing so, the city could upend a system that fills up jails, derails people's lives, and feeds a vicious cycle of poverty, unemployment, and sometimes mental illness. Atlanta is one of five cities in the running to receive a $200,000 grant to fund the design of a pre-arrest diversion program that, if awarded, would begin this fall.

"We're at a moment nationally where folks understand that we need to do everything we can to prevent people from spending time in jail," Mayor Kasim Reed says, "and so to the extent that there are ways to both help the individual repair their own life and also keep the public safe, we need to be at it."

Seattle, Santa Fe, and, as of last month, Albany, N.Y., are already "at it," using case management to address the root causes of crime. Case managers are on call 24/7 to offer substance abuse and mental health treatment, shelter, and employment services.

Since Seattle's initiative began in 2011, the city has seen a nearly 60 percent reduction in the rate of repeat arrests, and improved relations between the police and community. It's become an integral part of the city's public safety strategy.

SPD officials say the program saves $8,000 a year per participant compared to the cost of locking them up. Cash previously spent on incarceration now goes to helping the individual address health needs and find a job.

Georgia spends almost $19,000 per inmate annually, and $21,000 for the 30 percent of those serving time again. The state's recidivism rate ranks one of the highest in the country.

Last year, the Atlanta Police Department made 8,500 arrests for low-level crimes including loitering, jaywalking, possession of small amounts of marijuana, and street prostitution. People charged with violating city ordinances like these are arguably the most likely to be given the option of pre-arrest diversion, should the program be implemented.

The program's employment services are a large part of the reason Winn thinks diversion has the potential to change Atlantans' lives, particularly for people living in low-income, predominantly black communities where, under the current system, arrest and incarceration are common. For someone living on a low income, even short jail stays can upend a person's life.

"If you get locked up for jaywalking, you go to jail for two or three days. In two or three days, you've lost everything," says Dee Dee Chamblee, an advocate for Solutions Not Punishment who's served time in jail. "You've lost your job, you've lost your place to stay — that's a reality for a lot of poor people."

The program could also link the large number of homeless and mentally ill men and women in Atlanta currently subject to loitering arrests and other city ordinance citations to rehabilitation, keeping them off the street.

"The jail's population has a high percentage of mentally unstable or mentally ill people who need help. They don't need to be in jail — they need to be treated," APD Deputy Chief Joseph Spillane says.

Spillane acknowledges that the effects of mass incarceration are more harmful than rehabilitative — it "tears at the fabric of the society we're trying to serve," he says. "How do we get people out of that system and productive in society rather than locking everybody up for offenses that are not very serious?"

Community residents, including Steve Gower of the Midtown Ponce Security Alliance, say the city should focus the program on younger offenders — and not hesitate to "send the case into the criminal justice system if they do not demonstrate a serious commitment to move beyond a life of criminal activity."

Still, says Mary Sidney Kelly of Southern Center for Human Rights, the cycle must be broken — and it will take community support. "With pre-arrest diversion, folks could return to their community with some skills, opportunities for a job, and treatment for drug use, with mental illness treated as a disease instead of a behavior issue."

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