Not long ago, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple changed the name of the county jail from the Albany County Correctional Facility to the Albany County Corrections and Rehabilitative Services Center to reflect its broader mission to provide housing and services to homeless people. Most importantly, staff from nonprofit organizations and civilians employed by the sheriff’s department will now provide these services — outside of the criminal justice system.
Twenty-five former cells have been converted to rooms. Instead of bars, each room has a door and its own bed, sink, toilet and television. Clients will eat in a communal dining area and receive services and some training. It will be a “one-stop shop” for people experiencing homelessness and job loss or living with poorly or untreated substance use disorders or mental illness.
The cost to reconstruct the cells was $10,000. Things like televisions and kitchen appliances were donated.
Among the first clients to be admitted will be people released from jail who find themselves homeless. The goal is of course to keep them from cycling back into the criminal justice system.
Chances are Apple’s plan will save Albany County taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, make the city safer and save lives. That’s what happened in Miami-Dade, Fla., when a judge started providing services and treatment to people who constantly cycled in and out of jails, hospitals or homelessness.
Over the past two decades, nearly 9,000 people have been referred to a program created by Judge Steven Leifman to divert individuals with serious mental illnesses away from the criminal justice system and into comprehensive community-based services. Annual recidivism rates among participants went from 75% to 20%. The jail population dropped by 45%, allowing the county to close one of its jails and save $12 million a year.
According to Miami police, officer shootings of people with serious mental illness went from two a month to six in the last eight years, over a time period during which the number of arrests in Dade County went from 118,000 to 54,000.
To build on this success, Dade County just broke ground on its own “one-stop shop” facility to allow judges the ability to provide people with serious mental illnesses accused of misdemeanors or low-level felony level crimes with an off-ramp from the criminal justice system with the goal of never seeing them again, at least not behind bars.
This facility will offer treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and primary medical care needs, including eye and dental care; a court room; a crisis stabilization center where police can bring someone instead of arresting them; short- and longer-term residential space; a day activity program to teach self-sufficiency skills; and a supportive culinary employment program.
As New York City grapples with how to replace Rikers in the name of progressive reform, it’s still not too late to consider building “one-stop shops” like Albany and Dade County.
New York City has already demonstrated a remarkable and unprecedented ability to reduce the jail population. Now, it must address the core populations that will make further reductions more difficult.
The host communities of the proposed borough-based jails and advocates want smaller facilities. The shortest route to delivering them is to do what Albany and Dade have done — to make room elsewhere to better serve people with specific chronic needs such as housing, mental health and substance-abuse treatment — none of which are or should be the forte of jails or the city’s Correction Department.
As it moves jail beds out of Rikers and into the boroughs, the city has a rare opportunity to build more treatment and rehabilitative beds, and to finally right the wrong of the decades-long mass incarceration of people with mental illness. Incarcerating this population has not been fair, effective or fiscally responsible to them or their families, nor to corrections officers or communities.
Now is the time to ensure that mental health treatment is provided outside of the criminal justice system and in the public health system, where it belonged in the first place.
Roberts is executive director of the Greenburger Center for Social and Criminal Justice.