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Time - served on the outside - turns young offenders around

By Jim BencivengaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1988

New York

FOUR men face Judge Carol Berkman. Two are convicted of armed robbery. She is ready to sentence both. Since one man is a predicate (repeat) offender her task is easy - a mandatory 1 to 3 years. He and his legal-aid lawyer go through the motions. One more body for the ``belly of the beast.'' There is room for judicial discretion with the other offender, however. He has just turned 19, and it's his first conviction. But the court-appointed lawyer fails to show up. The judge will have to reschedule, especially since she recognizes the fourth man, standing next to him, Danny Colon. She knows Mr. Colon wants her to risk an alternative sentence for this felon, a risk Colon will share with the court and the people of New York.

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With alternative sentencing, the offender must report daily to a counselor at Court Employment Project (CEP). These counselors have a caseload of not more than 15 individuals, and can help their clients complete school, find a job, get off drugs, learn to like themselves, whatever it takes to keep them from another crime.

Colon's presence in court could pluck this young tough out of the corrections line and place him in a program that has a better than 70 percent chance of keeping him out of prison. Should Judge Berkman say no and sentence him to time behind bars, there is a better than 80 percent chance he will break the law again, and another judge will put this same young man away for a longer time.

``We are a program of last resort, we go for the hard cases,'' says Jo Ann Page, director of court programs for CEP. ``If there is any other way to keep an individual from being locked up, we'll let someone else take care of it,'' she says.

What is Ms. Page's profile of a hard case? A youthful offender whose crime was serious enough so that the court does not even set bail. Without CEP, such high-risk offenders would probably simply go to prison.

A nonprofit organization, CEP has a contract with the New York City criminal-justice system to provide a sentencing alternative for jailbound defendants as well as alternative bail for defendants who would otherwise remain in long-term detention.

At a time when prison overcrowding and soaring corrections costs have public officials scrambling for alternatives to prison across the country, CEP has been in existence for more than a decade. It deals with large numbers of felons, mainly young offenders who have committed robbery, burglary, or similar crimes. Originally an offshoot of the Vera Institute in New York City, its money comes from public and private sources.

``We reach people just after they have made a serious wrong turn in their lives,'' says Page, a cum laude graduate of Yale Law School. ``We tell them they have gone the wrong way and that they have a chance to turn around, come back, and stand at that crossroads again and make a choice to change directions.''

Changing directions is certainly what one mother wants her son to do. She is here for the first time at CEP's main office in lower Manhattan with court papers remanding the youth to CEP's custody. Her 17-year-old son sits beside her - hope, fear, and confusion are written on both faces.

This mother knows that CEP is the only thing standing between probation and a two-year prison sentence for her son, just convicted of armed robbery and assault of a senior citizen while roaming with a gang of youths. (This reporter was allowed to sit in on the counseling session as long as privacy was respected.)

The process by which CEP came to know of the youth's arrest is part of what makes its program unique, says Bart Lubow, deputy director in the New York state division of probation and correctional alternatives.