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Breaking the revolving door of justice - D.A. Hynes touts the effectiveness of an expanded ComALERT program

When the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office saw that of the 3,000 to 5,000 formerly incarcerated individuals who come back home to Brooklyn every year, six out of ten were going back to prison, it knew it had a problem. “When we started the ComALERT program, we enrolled 200 individuals, and only two out of 10 people went back to prison,” said District Attorney Charles Hynes. “We expanded to 600 people, then 1,200 this year, and we had the same rate going back. I want to see this go to one out of 10 or even zero out of 10.” ComALERT, Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together, is the crown jewel of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s crime prevention programs. Established in 1999, the program is designed to help individuals transitioning from prison to Brooklyn and reduce their recidivism. The program connects parolees to essential substance abuse services and job training and placement services from the Doe Fund and other partner organizations once they have committed to eliminating their drug and alcohol use. “When they come from a program like this where they have been clean and sober for nine months and they are vetted through the Doe Fund, they’re up and ready to go,” said Lance Ogiste, Counsel to the Brooklyn District Attorney. On February 12, Hynes made a presentation to the City Bar Association about the results of a ComALERT Evaluation report written by Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, who has been tracking the program since its inception. Western and the District Attorney’s Office released the report in October 2007, resulting in much media attention, including a New York Times editorial praising the program and calls from District Attorneys’ offices across the country inquiring about replicating the program in their home counties. “My concern about the reentry programs proliferating around the country is that someone will do something bad and everybody will run to the hills,” Hynes said to several attorneys from the Westchester County DAs office recently. “What we need to emphasize is that people were selected into this program. Our alternative is to let them wander around with little or no support and cause problems. In the past seven years, I’ve had little to no problems with this program.” Western found that ComALERT clients were 15 percent less likely to be re-arrested two years after their release from prison and 30 percent less likely to be re-arrested if they graduated from the program, compared to a group of individuals with a similar criminal history. The survey data also showed that ComAlert clients and graduates had employment rates that were more than twice as high as a comparison group with similar criminal and demographic backgrounds. At ComALERT’s orientation program, which occurs once every two weeks on the third floor of the Brooklyn County Municipal Building, formerly incarcerated individuals get briefed by ComALERT social workers and receive one-on-one counseling sessions designed to prepare them for the workforce. Parolees must undergo a substance abuse treatment program and be substance free before participating in job counseling sessions. “The goal is that you never go back to prison and get a start finding employment in this community,” said John Chaney, Deputy Executive Director of ComALERT, to the parolees. “You’re in a good place. If you really want to make it, drugs and alcohol can’t have a place in your life going forward.” While the population of formerly incarcerated individuals has traditionally had a difficult time finding entry-level work, the District Attorney’s Office is committed to placing parolees into stable working environments and monitoring their clients to ensure quality control. “We monitor employees and change service providers if we have to,” Vonda Seward, Executive Director of ComALERT, said. “We hold community based organizations accountable. I need to refer my people to agencies who are people friendly. I understand that there might be a fear factor but we are offering kind of like a guarantee.” The District Attorney’s Office views the program as part of its overall crime prevention efforts and working to reduce recidivism among a vulnerable population. “We are doing good by keeping families together, reducing costs, and improving public safety,” Ogiste said. “It’s a lot cheaper to keep people in the community than to incarcerate people upstate at a cost of about $60,000 per year.” For more information about ComALERT, call 718-250-5557 or visit the ComALERT offices at 210 Joralemon Street, 3rd Floor in downtown Brooklyn.

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