Genesee Justice : County Makes Alternative Sentencing Work

Associated Press

They call it Genesee Justice, a system of alternative sentencing that seems to be working in a rural area of western New York that is keenly aware of the consequences of prison overcrowding.

Just 10 miles down the road on the Wyoming County line lies Attica, where overcrowding fueled an inmate uprising in 1971 that left 43 dead, one of the nation's bloodiest prison riots ever.

But jails are not crowded today in Genesee County, mainly because the sheriff, the local judges and even many of the victims of crime believe that a prison sentence does not necessarily mean justice has been served.

Free Labor

Instead of being placed behind bars, many convicted felons--usually first-time offenders--are sent out into the community to renovate churches, clean parks or build town halls. More than 120 different agencies are eager to accept the free labor, said Dennis Wittman, Genesee County's community service and victim assistance coordinator.

"We've had over 100,000 hours of community service and not a single agency has been ripped off," he said. "I'm telling you, it works."

Criminals also can be placed under house arrest. They can be forced to go to counseling and make restitution to their victims. In some cases, they also meet their victim and hear about the sorrow they caused.

In the last 5 1/2 years, more than 1,000 criminals--mostly first-time offenders charged with crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to sexual abuse--have been kept out of jail in Genesee County. Only about 10% to 15% wound up in front of a judge again, Wittman said, while about 35 failed to fulfill their community service and were incarcerated.

30 Judges Participate

All levels of the judicial system participate in the program, including about 30 city, town, village and county judges.

Genesee Justice has been so successful, Wittman said, that more than 400 counties and communities in six countries and 22 states have sought more information about how the system works.

Although Attica's population has been carefully monitored since that 1971 riot, the problem of prison overcrowding has become a crisis across the nation.

Local and state governments have already appropriated $25 billion to add 359,000 new inmate beds in coming years, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Even at that building pace, the agency projects that prison and jail overcrowding will continue to be a problem into the 21st Century.

'Build More Cells'

"There are so many myths and everyone just falls right in line with them," Wittman said. "Build more cells, build more prisons. Why isn't the emphasis on why we have jail overcrowding? Are there any solutions? We think the answer is yes."

Genesee County authorities have found that victims of crime do not always want vengeance. Sometimes they sit across a table from the criminal and ask him to apologize.

Adell Booker, 31, whose husband and three young sons were killed two years ago in an accident caused by a driver who had been drinking, is one victim who decided against a jail sentence.

"I think it was just the realization of how much the legal system can do," she said. "What good would sending him to jail do?"

Funeral Expenses

Instead, she recommended to the judge that the 22-year-old driver of the car be put on five years' probation, have his driver's license suspended, do 300 hours of community service and pay her for the funeral and cemetery expenses.

"I think this sentence is harder than just going to jail and sitting," said Booker, who, along with her infant daughter, was injured in the crash.

Her case is a good example of what makes the Genesee Justice program different from other types of alternative sentencing methods being used around the country, Wittman said.

"The most important thing is attending to the victim," he said. "Once you do that, and do it intensively, incredible things can happen."

Effect of Crime Told

In Genesee County, it is not unusual for a judge to receive a thick stack of papers, 60 to 100 pages, from a victim and his or her friends and relatives describing the effect of a crime on them.

All victims are told about the realities of the justice system, especially about how prison overcrowding tends to shorten sentences.

"Some believe that in remembrance of their loved ones there's a better way to do justice," Wittman said. "Some get over the vengeance and the anger and if they believe the person is a remorseful figure, what's the sense of throwing him in the slammer."

$20,000 a Year

Wittman tells victims and their families that it costs about $20,000 to send someone to prison for a year. The cost of putting an offender on probation for five years, having a period of house arrest, sending him to counseling and requiring some community service is $3,000 a year.

People still go to jail in Genesee County, Wittman said, but mostly just the people who belong there.

For instance, there was never any doubt in Evelyn Clayton's mind that the man who shot her husband to death two years ago should be sent to prison, but she went through the Genesee Justice program.

"It was more of a healing process for me," said Clayton, who now works as a volunteer for the victim assistance portion of the program. "When it's a premeditated murder, I don't believe those people should be out of jail."

Walking on Highway

Former Sheriff Doug Call, who helped Wittman launch the program after he took office in 1981, said that putting people in jail who do not belong there does not do anybody any good. In the past, he has complained to judges who have ordered people to jail for having a loud muffler or walking on the interstate highway.

"One judge said it would do a woman with a loud muffler some good to go to jail. Well, I told him that lesson is going to cost 1,200 bucks," said Call, who recently resigned to resume a law practice, saying that his "innovative energy" had been used up and it was time for someone new to take over.

Wittman is helping introduce the system to Kansas City to prove that it can work in an urban setting, and he is also working with state officials to design some state standards for alternatives to jail and prison.

He said he is consistently reminded "that Genesee County is not New York City," and that applying the county's system may be a pie-in-the-sky idea. But he figures his approach is just as good as any other, since none of the other ideas seems to be working.

Rising Budget Item

The nation's prison population reached an all-time high of 570,519 inmates this summer and a recent survey found that prison spending has become the fastest-growing budget item in almost every state.

In New York, the state's overall prison population is about 12% above capacity, with hundreds of inmates being added each week to the 41,000 already jailed, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Jim Flateau.

Since Gov. Mario M. Cuomo took office in 1983, the state has added 10,500 cells and plans to build two more 700-bed facilities. The state also plans to use a 700-bed British troop barge used in the Falkland Islands to serve as a floating prison in New York City.

Cuomo, like fellow governors around the country, has called the situation a crisis.

At Least One Benefit

The doom-and-gloom forecast does have at least one benefit: It has managed to increase interest in finding alternatives to incarceration, according to several criminal justice experts.

"Over the past few years the issue has shifted from a social one to an economic one because now prison spending is cutting into education, health care and other areas," said Joan Petersilia, a senior criminologist at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

Two factors have led to the huge overcrowding, she said.

There has been an increase in the number of people in the crime-prone age group of 17 to 25. Also, the nation has become disgusted with attempts to curb crime, so voters have been passing tougher laws such as mandatory sentencing.

Number Climbs to 40

Petersilia has been charting the progress of alternative sentencing programs across the country for the last five years. In 1984, she said, five states had developed alternative programs. This year, that number had climbed to 40.

Ken Schoen, director of the justice program for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, said that governors have started answering his calls and even requesting meetings.

The foundation is the largest private source of grants to develop alternatives to incarceration, offering $3.5 million a year since 1981.

"We have the remedies on the shelf, we just have to convince people to use them," he said. "Now, because of the costs, I think there's a growing receptiveness to what we have to say."

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