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.
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.
Over the last three months, CEP's efforts have included a sequence of steps that began with computer screening of some 5,600 detainees in the New York City criminal-justice system. Then there was a closer look at some 850 of these. Personal interviews were conducted with 34 more, and 29 were selected for the program.
But judges don't release everyone CEP asks for. Only 16 of the 29 were assigned to CEP supervision. This boy was one of them.
Yet total intake for the past fiscal year was 169 - 19 more cases than the 150 CEP had contracted with the city to deflect from prison or prolonged pretrial detention. Fewer than one-third of the felons sentenced to CEP did not complete the program and had to incarcerated, an exceptionally good record say corrections officials. Without CEP, 90 percent were sure to go to prison.
The average cost of a CEP case is $7,000 per year. Compare this with an annual prison cost per inmate approaching $24,000. And though the reduced cost matches other alternative-sentencing programs around the country, there is one key difference - the offenders in CEP are from an urban offender population that is both violent and youthful. CEP has offices in or next to courthouses in four of New York's five boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx.
A recent study requested by New York Mayor Edward Koch shows that a year after entering the alternatives to incarceration program at CEP, 72 percent of those who completed it did not commit a crime. The recidivism rate for those who go to prison is 60 percent. The study was paid for by the state and the Burden and Kunstadter Family Foundations.
The city is getting a good deal, say criminal-justice experts familiar with CEP. ``They have a very, very good program,'' says Ken Schoen, a court-appointed master for the city's jail system and director of criminal-justice programs at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
``They take a population of young offenders charged with serious crimes, probably the most serious offenses that New York state allows for alternative sentencing, and have a high success rate,'' says Mr. Lubow, whose office gives CEP money. ``It's one of the most effective of the more than 150 programs we fund,'' he says.
CEP has an ``uncanny way of knowing when to cut off working with someone as well,'' says Ms. Berkman. The fact that CEP counselors go directly to her and say, ``We can't work with this person any more,'' strengthens their position with her when they say they are willing to take on a difficult case, she says. ``It's extremely important to me to know that I don't have someone floating around out there without supervision,'' she says.
Lester (not his real name) says he ``got locked up doing a robbery.'' He sits across from CEP counselor Eileen Doyle in the Manhattan office, where peeling paint, flickering bulbs, and furniture the Salvation Army wouldn't accept are standard. The phones are rotary dial and work provided no rat has chewed through the wiring on a late-night binge.
``I feel better about myself, I can talk over problems,'' says Lester. He is living with his grandfather, ``helping him as much as I can, because he old,'' says the 19-year-old. ``I was smoking reefers all the time, not talking with anyone. But here, I learned how to read,'' he says. More important, he says, with a grateful look at Ms. Doyle, ``I learned you have to help yourself.''
Lester will still report to a parole officer after he graduates from intensive supervision Sept. 30. Right now, he and Doyle have no doubt the risk was worth taking last April when he entered the program.
Time - outside, rather than inside - will tell.