DA Vance Delivers Keynote Remarks at NYS Corrections and Youth Services Association Symposium in Albany, NY


October 24, 2018

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you to CAYSA, and in particular, thank you [CAYSA President] Lisa [Brennan] for inviting me to your annual symposium. Thanks Commissioner Tony Annucci for being here today and for your strong partnership. I’m grateful to you and your predecessor Brian Fischer for making yourselves available to my office at all times over the years.

The dual mission of the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is a safer New York and a fairer justice system. As applied to incarceration, that means our job is to keep Manhattan as safe as possible, using not one more day of jail than is necessary. That is the overall ethos that contemporary prosecutors’ officers need to work with in order to reduce mass incarceration safely and significantly.

The familiar context in which this comes up at the D.A.’s Office is our plea and sentence offers as well as our bail requests. And so our plea guidelines ask our prosecutors to make offers which hold defendants accountable without excessive jail time, and pre-trial, we ask them only to request bail for defendants who really need to be custodially detained. Those are the direct contexts in which we apply this vision. But our goal – to use not one more day of jail than is necessary to keep Manhattan safe – requires a more radical rethinking of crime and punishment in New York in the 21st century.

Because if you think about it, we can safely reduce unnecessary incarceration at the front end too, by ending prosecutions outright, for entire categories of low-level offenses that do not implicate public safety. We’re now doing that in Manhattan for things like marijuana possession and smoking, subway turnstile jumping, and virtually all summonses and violations. We’re prosecuting about 40,000 fewer cases than we used to each year, and Manhattan is only getting safer.

So it’s not just about the offers we make and the bail requests we make. Discretion in prosecution – discretion in not accepting every last case referred by police – is one big way my office is safely reducing incarceration. We are eliminating any chance of incarceration on the instant low-level offense, and reducing the chance of future incarceration for the person, by leaving them without a predicate conviction in the event they do have future criminal justice involvement.

But the other really big way we can safely reduce unnecessary incarceration is through successful reentry, which is what I’m here to talk about today.

One could ask, why does a D.A. care about reentry? After all, it’s the one part of the criminal justice process that we are not directly part of. First, as a technical matter, reentry should be important to all public servants sworn to execute New York’s penal law, since it’s right there on the face of the law as one of the stated purposes of the Penal Law:

“The general purposes of the provisions of this chapter are . . . to insure the public safety by preventing the commission of offenses through the deterrent influence of the sentences authorized….”

Okay – sentences should appropriately deter others from doing the crime, got it. And then it continues, that another general purpose of the Penal Law is to ensure:

“The rehabilitation of those convicted and the promotion of their successful and productive reentry and reintegration into society.”

So it’s right there in the Penal Law that one of the purposes of having a Penal Law is not just punishment, but successful reentry. So I suppose that’s one reason why reentry is important to me – it’s a foundational principle in our state’s criminal laws.

Another reason I care about reentry is that it’s a matter of our own responsibility and accountability. Law enforcement should firmly and finally acknowledge that when we play a role in sending someone to prison, we own some of the responsibility for what happens when they get out. If we recommend that someone serve prison time, we shouldn’t consider the matter out of our hands once they are done serving it. In many cases, they wouldn’t be in prison – and therefore, wouldn’t be trying to reenter the community from prison – if not for our sentencing recommendation. So we own it.

But the simpler reason why successful reentry is important to me is a practical one. It makes us safer. Every year, about 20,000 New Yorkers return to our City following a period of incarceration. That’s about 60 percent of all of the reentrants statewide, according to DOCCS. And tragically, 42 percent of people released from New York prisons returned to prison within three years.

This revolving door isn’t just a human tragedy for re-entering New Yorkers, their families, and their communities. It’s a public safety problem. When New Yorkers return to their communities without the basic tools they need to reenter successfully, we are all less safe. If they reenter their communities without any real shot at a job, chances are, they are going to end up back in prison.

College in Prison

That’s common sense, but there is data to back it up, too. A study conducted by the Rand Corporation found that individuals who participate in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to recidivate and return to prison. And, they’re 13 percent more likely to obtain employment after their release.

Up until 2017, prison education programs in New York State were scattershot. Many facilities offered some college courses, but the funding for those courses was limited, temporary and private, such that only about 1,000 incarcerated New Yorkers took college-level classes in 2016. Those classes had long waitlists, and there was no standardization of the programs across the state. So, many inmates did not bother with college classes, and when they did, this lack of standardization and lack of available seats in the classes meant that they did not make significant progress toward completing a degree.

Governor Cuomo saw this picture and wisely saw the need for the State to come in and provide real funding, real standardization, and a real plan that could translate into the actual obtainment of a college degree for incarcerated New Yorkers. The legislature saw things another way. Some believed it was a good idea, but that state funds were needed elsewhere first. Others were philosophically opposed and quite strident in their opposition, asking why the State should spend money on “criminals,” when there were perfectly noncriminal students who needed resources in 62 counties up and down the state.

In Manhattan, we thought it was a good idea, and thanks to unprecedented forfeiture dollars we seized in our investigations of major banks, we had the money to fund it. So we did, seizing on a windfall opportunity to make college in prison programs possible at statewide scale. Working with Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Annucci, we invested $7.3 million to fund educational programming and reentry services at 17 New York prisons over the next five years. That’s the equivalent of more than 2,500 seats for college-level education for incarcerated New Yorkers across the state. Inmates can now earn an Associate’s degree, Bachelor’s degree, or industry-recognized certificate, thanks to our seven participating colleges. And I’d like to thank those colleges for recognizing that their institutions have a powerful role to play in enhancing public safety in New York. Thank you Bard, Cornell, Medaille, Mercy College, Mohawk Valley Community College, NYU, and SUNY Jefferson.

Under this first-ever statewide College in Prison program, there is no particular type of crime or conviction that would exclude you from participating. The only requirement is that you have no more than five years remaining on your sentence. That is because the program is tailored by design to cover New Yorkers who are on that reentry journey – who in just a few years will be expected to compete in a labor market with community members who were not incarcerated.

The Ford Foundation has stepped up to serve as our Education Coordinator, and they’re doing a terrific job managing and overseeing this work. They kicked in funding for a full and rigorous evaluation of our College In Prison program across multiple facilities, which the Vera Institute of Justice will now perform. Vera is going to take a critical look at the implementation of the program, of the outcomes so far, and the costs. They’re going to add to the field of data out there on the effect of college programming on both recidivism and employment. They’re going to break it down by demographics, by crime types. And, we hope, the results of their evaluation will inform future policy and funding decisions regarding College in Prison programs in New York and across the country. I’m hopeful that Vera will show Albany lawmakers that the proof is in the pudding, and College in Prison should be funded permanently statewide.

Parole Forums

College In Prison is something my office is doing for New Yorkers who are still inside. And to be clear, we’re doing it “for them,” but we’re also doing it for our communities – because if these New Yorkers succeed when they return, their community is safer. But what can prosecutors do when someone is actually reentering? Remember, we own some of the responsibility for what happens to them when they get out, since we recommended prison as a good plan to rehabilitate them. So what can we do, both to support that person, and to support the safety of our communities? Turns out, there is a lot we can do.

In recent years, my Office imported something which originated in Chicago – the parole forum model. Every month for the last seven years, we take a look at who is coming out, and at data which determines who is at the highest risk of reoffending and committing a violent new crime. Then we invite those returning New Yorkers to a monthly forum that we hold at Soul Saving Station Church in West Harlem, where we’re joined by police and parole personnel, federal partners, community stakeholders, service providers, and people with lived experience with incarceration and reentry.

When these formerly incarcerated New Yorkers walk through the door at Soul Saving Station, the very first thing we say is: “Welcome home.” We are there to say, welcome home, you are a full member of this community, and we are here to help you rejoin it. And you can call any of these people any time you want. You can come back here next month if you want. This is your community, too, and all of these people are available to help you avoid going back to prison.

“Inside Criminal Justice” Course

It wasn’t long before we realized that there were things that we – as prosecutors and justice policymakers – could learn from these reentering New Yorkers. We realized that the flow of information and education should not only flow one-way. Who are we to set criminal justice and sentencing policy if we’ve never spent a full night inside, and never tried to reenter ourselves?

So, from January through April of this year, 8 Manhattan Assistant District Attorneys and eight residents of Queensboro Correctional Facility studied criminal justice together alongside one another in a seminar setting taught by Columbia University Professor of Psychology Geraldine Downey and one of our ADAs, Lucy Lang. We called the course “Inside Criminal Justice.” Queensboro is a “reentry facility” where the staff works hard to prepare the resident students for their release. And during the course of our 3-month Inside Criminal Justice class, all eight of the Queensboro students were in fact released, but they would return to Queensboro for the weekly seminar sessions, and to attend meetings, lectures, and outings organized by us and Columbia. The course included in-depth discussion centered on the students’ and prosecutors’ lived experience, as well as analysis of readings about the origins and evolution of the criminal justice system, the history of race in America, the psychology of punishment, and social and political engagement in marginalized communities. In addition to regular writing assignments, the students worked together in small groups to create a “social change project,” the results of which they formally presented at a conferral ceremony in April, where they proudly received course completion certificates issued by Columbia University. I was so honored to preside over that ceremony, and so proud of this new bridge we have built to the reentry population, in collaboration with Columbia and DOCCS. And now classes for our new cohort at Queensboro are underway this semester.

After that first round of classes, one of the students wrote to us, “the seminar gives the opportunity for all participants to really understand one another’s positions and to see society, victims, and defendants differently.” And then one of my assistants echoed that point, noting: “the seminar has served to elucidate the humanity of the individuals we prosecute.” That basic humanity, that dignity, must be afforded to all reentering New Yorkers. Once a New Yorker has paid her debt – the precise length of which was prescribed by a prosecutor and a judge – then she should be afforded the same basic humanity and dignity as every other New Yorker. The debt has been paid in full, so they should be restored to full liberty and full citizenship in our state.

That’s why I supported “ban the box” and why it’s now illegal for employers in New York City to ask job applicants about their criminal records. It’s why I supported Raise The Age, and it’s why my Office hires formerly incarcerated New Yorkers, especially in roles where they will interface and mentor newly reentering New Yorkers. It’s why I support full voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, and an expansion of the statutory grounds for exoneration. These are policies which extend the same basic humanity and dignity that I’ve seen Tony afford inmates every time they approach him inside. They extend full rights to those who have paid their debts, and extend to them a feeling of basic dignity and of belonging in this now less-familiar community which they are returning.

After all, we are trying to keep Manhattan safe using no more incarceration than necessary. We should be including in this endeavor the idea that, in a New Yorker’s life, the consequences of incarceration last not one more day than necessary.

 New Programs for Returning New Yorkers

So those are some things we’re doing to support New Yorkers who are inside and those in the process of coming out. But before I leave you today I want to let you know about a couple of pilot programs for formerly incarcerated folks we have underway in Manhattan now. And perhaps, if you think these programs might work in your community, you can continue a dialogue with my Office about how to try them in your city.

The first is very simple. Working with Governor Cuomo and the state DMV, we are opening a DMV satellite office right inside the DOCCS Manhattan Parole office, which will be open exclusively to reentering New Yorkers two mornings each week. Why? One of the tallest barriers to reentry is a lack of state-issued identification. ID is required to secure permanent housing, employment, a bank account, you name it. But getting ID is not easy. You need to pay for it, you need to have other proof of identity to apply for one in the first place, and then you have to wait weeks or months to actually get the card. Too often, a simple lack of ID translates to very prompt recidivism. So this pilot will determine whether we can prevent a lot of that early recidivism by funding and facilitating free state ID cards, which unlock the services and opportunities that all New Yorkers need to succeed.

The second pilot program is one we launched in April, using our forfeiture investments, in partnership with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. DOH came to us with the proposal and we were simply blown away. So we invested $3 million in their new Health Justice Network, which exists exclusively to connect formerly incarcerated individuals with proper, stable, medical care. This is the largest single investment in primary care for reentering individuals that has ever been made, and we believe this proof of concept will show our state and our country that investing in healthcare can have a dramatic effect on recidivism and crime reduction.

Under this pilot program, we selected three clinics in underserved neighborhoods, and had DOH specially train everyone – from the doctors to the receptionists – all toward the singular goal of serving reentering individuals. Our investment also funded the hiring of peer navigators, who are formerly incarcerated themselves, to work out of these clinics and help newly reentering New Yorkers access primary care and navigate what can be an incredibly complicated system – even for those without a criminal record.

I hope to come back here to next year’s symposium and tell you about how these pilot programs are going. Will they shut the revolving door of recidivism once and for all? No. Will they meaningfully reduce recidivism in Manhattan? We certainly hope so.

Do these measures extend to returning New Yorkers the basic humanity, dignity, and chance to succeed that you get up every day and strive to provide to people on the inside? I believe they’re a good start in this direction. And I believe we still have more to learn from you all on how we can best help these New Yorkers succeed. I’m eager to take your questions. Thank you all for your service and for listening today.

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