Revolving Jail Cell Doors

The recent salvo of drug raids in the city is an encouraging sign for those eager to see drug dealers in jail.

What’s not so encouraging is seeing many of these criminals back on the streets and re-offending within a matter of months, weeks and even days after their arrest.

Repeat offenders like Raheem Butts, a 23-year-old Jamestown man who was recently charged with drug possession on April 30, have become familiar faces on local police and media reports.

In 2013, Butts was given the exact same charge for a similar crime. In 2012, he was charged with promoting prison contraband. In 2011, he was charged after a fight involving knives and shovels.

It seems “going to jail” is no longer the deterrent that it used to be. And with repeat offenders taking up space and costing valuable taxpayer dollars, jails across the nation – including the Chautauqua County Jail – find themselves facing a massive “revolving door” dilemma.

The question is: why? And more importantly, what can be done to fix the problem?

In April, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a federal study of recidivism in 30 states – including New York state. The study tracked 405,000 inmates who were released in 2005.

The study revealed that 28 percent of the released inmates were arrested for a new crime within six months. Sixty-eight percent were arrested within three years. And a staggering 77 percent were arrested again within five years.

A similar study by the Pew Center on the States revealed that more than four out of 10 offenders returned to jail within three years of their release.

Considering the high rate of incarceration in America, these numbers are not terribly shocking. But they do put a fresh spotlight on state penal laws and the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs.

According to David Foley, Chautauqua County district attorney, the passing of the Drug Law Reform Act in 2009, has had a considerable – and not entirely positive – effect on sentencing.

“In essence, what (this law) has done is taken a lot of the district attorney’s say out,” Foley said. “Before we would have to authorize people to go into drug treatment … now second-time drug offenders are able to apply to (rehabilitation programs) even over our objections.”

The Drug Law Reform Act was designed to rectify the controversial Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973, which many New Yorkers considered too draconian. Named after then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, the laws applied a harsh minimum penalty of 15 years to life in prison for selling or possessing minimal amounts of drugs.

While recent reforms have eased this minimum sentencing down to eight years, they’ve also given offenders greater access to jail diversion programs, which according to Foley, can give criminals expedited – and sometimes questionable – releases.

“I’m sure there are some people who go in and take advantage of some of this programming, come out and are successful,” Foley said. “But you are also going to have people who get involved in these programs, get released six months or 90 days later, and just re-engage in the same behavior they engaged in before. We can prosecute them again … but as a predicate felon, they’re entitled to go back to those programs again.”

Indeed, Foley’s frustration is likely shared by many in law enforcement and the community as a whole. But it also strikes at the heart of an ongoing debate about recidivism in general: should repeat offenders simply stay in jail or should they continue to receive the training and programming necessary to succeed in the outside world?

CodyAnne Weise, employment and re-entry facilitator at the Chautauqua County Jail, is a staunch advocate of the latter.

“Who do you want in your community?” she asked. “These people are eventually going to get out and get off probation, and they’re going to come back to the community. Do you want them coming back with better skills on how to deal and cope with their mental health issues, their substance abuse issues, their aggression issues … or do you want them to come back with less skills? Who do you want as your neighbor or standing next to you in line at the supermarket? These people are going to be a part of our community whether we like it or not.”

Weise, while acknowledging that many inmates are simply not afraid of jail and actually enjoy its security, regards the three biggest contributors to recidivism as mental health, substance abuse and a cultural component she refers to as “generational poverty.”

“Generational poverty is where you’ve grown up in a family … and your attitudes, beliefs and values are not the same as if you grew up in a middle-class family,” Weise said. “You’ve learned how to work the welfare system, you’ve learned how to make money with drugs, you’ve learned how to get a doctor to prescribe you opiates so you can sell them on the street. It’s a value system … and it’s hard to change.”

In 2013, the Chautauqua County Office of Probation was awarded the “200 Percent of Poverty Alternatives to Incarceration” grant by the Division of Criminal Justice Services. The grant seeks to reduce recidivism by funding re-entry and training programs to individuals with families whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

According to Weise, 11 inmates successfully completed the programs associated with the grant last year. To date, none have returned to jail.

“This is why these programs are so important,” Weise said. “This is not a bleeding-heart care service. This is a practical, dollars and cents issue. The (inmates) that make it (through these programs) and get a job will save taxpayers a ton of money.”