Brooklyn offers jail alternative to small-time criminals

Jackie Smith stands next to her court-appointed lawyer in Brooklyn Criminal Court and waits for Judge Maurice Brill to sentence her. She has pleaded guilty to petty larceny and attempted petty larceny - she was shoplifting some sheets in one instance and cans of salmon in another.

Ms. Smith, an unemployed single mother of two, has had more than a dozen previous arrests, mostly for shoplifting, and has spent some time in jail. She is poor, only went to school through the seventh grade, and admits to having a drug problem. Now she is worried about being sent back to jail. The district attorney's office had earlier suggested 90 days.

Enter the Brooklyn Community Service Sentencing Project, a program run by the Vera Institute of Justice Inc. Although community-service sentences throughout the country are most frequently given to white-collar criminals or traffic offenders, the program specifically targets nonviolent property offenders who are almost certainly bound for short jail terms.

And Smith fits that profile, the district attorney's representative and the judge agree. Smith is given 105 hours of community service through the closely supervised Brooklyn project.

''I'm very happy,'' Smith says later. ''I thought I'd be in jail on Christmas ,'' says Smith. ''I've never been away from my kids on Christmas.''

Vera's community service sentencing program is not aimed at rehabilitating petty recidivists; the usual sentence of 70 hours just is not long enough to have an impact on the many factors that contribute to crime. In fact, the rearrest rate was nearly the same in a study comparing participants with similar offenders sent to jail.

But city officials say it makes dollars and sense when jails are overcrowded, when the cost of incarcerating someone in New York City is more than $30,000 a year, and when the cost per cell for new jails is an estimated $175,000. About 1 ,000 offenders a year are sentenced to this punishment each year in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. The city plans to fund a program in Queens in the next fiscal year.

Michael Coleman, the supervisor of legal aid in Brooklyn, calls it the ''best of the lot'' in terms of alternative sentencing. Chief Judge Robert G. M. Keating says any kind of alternative is good because it gives judges a broader range of choices in sentencing, helps get cases out of the system more quickly, and is generally cheaper. He has heard no objections to the community service sentencing project from judges in his court, who he says see it as positive.

The Correctional Association of New York is scheduled to release a report this week suggesting that the annual cost of keeping an inmate in a city jail is closer to $40,000. It cites the Vera program as one of several alternatives that ''could make over 1,300 jail beds available, thereby saving $53 million a year . . . in operating expenses'' and $95 million in jail construction costs.

The screening process for the community service sentencing program begins early each day in the court houses. In Brooklyn, court representative Susan Nevins checks the arraignments calendar and lists potential participants in the program. The crimes vary, but in Brooklyn the offenders in the program tend to be booked for crimes such as commercial burglaries, joy riding in stolen autos, and shoplifting.

Then Ms. Nevins thoroughly checks the background of the offenders. She visits the district attorney's office to see if officials there agree that the defendent is suitable for the program. And she interviews the defendent to confirm information gleaned from the previous screening, and to get a face-to-face impression.

If all looks well, her next step is to attend the arraignment and speak to the judge about sentencing the offender to community service.

When she speaks to Judge Brill about Ms. Smith, she tells him that she would suggest 70 hours of community service. He disagrees.

''I would suggest more,'' says Brill. ''Unfortunately this lady's record is not the best.'' The 105-hour sentence is agreed upon, with the judge's warning that if Smith doesn't fulfill it, he will jail her for 90 days.

Approximately 85 percent of the offenders sentenced to community service complete it, says Judith Greene, director of the programs. And of the 15 percent who don't, about 10 percent are resentenced. Vera gets an arrest warrant for anyone who doesn't fulfill the sentence.

A social services coordinator in each borough helps keep the completion rate high. In Brooklyn, the coordinator helped get Ms. Smith into a methadone drug-abuse treatment program.

Vaughn Jackson, director of the Brooklyn program, says he wants participants to know that they are serving a sentence, but that the project also offers help. He tells Smith not to steal if she needs food.

''Call us,'' he says. ''We have support services. We don't want you doing something like that.''

Several days later, at the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area, his admonition is being followed. Smith explains how she'll be able to give her daughters Christmas presents. ''I can't go boosting, '' she says, referring to shoplifting. She says in the past she stole things to help tide her over until the welfare check arrived. ''I'd boost dolls and things for them.''

In the communities, there is often enthusiasm for the work done. Vera worker Clayton Williams says the free labor often saves community groups 60 to 80 percent in expenses for projects.

''I didn't know what to think,'' says the Rev. George Murray at Mt. Pisgah. Mr. Williams walked in one day to offer him the services of the community sentencing project. ''It sounded too good to be true.''

Since then the crews have painted classrooms in the church's school and started to rehabilitate the old rectory.

At the work site, most of the offenders point out that the biggest advantage to community service sentencing is not being in jail. Beyond that, most definitely see it as a punishment.

''Jail would have messed me up and put my wife and kids in a bad spot,'' says one offender, named David. He has one child and one ''on the way.'' As he paints steps at Mt. Pisgah, he says the sentence is ''teaching me a lesson.''

Susan Nevins admits that not all offenders are sincere in wanting to straighten out. Recently she ran into a young man in the courthouse who had not completed the sentence and was back in on another charge. But she does believe the program helps.

''For many it's the last opportunity to straighten out their lives, to blend into society,'' she says. ''I don't think they'll turn out to be Rockefellers or Kennedys. But they can try to take a couple steps up, leading to a decent, noncriminal life. Everyone deserves a chance.''

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