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Restoring Alternatives: Isla and Michael Roona of Social Capitol Development Corporation. Photo by Teri Currie.

We Punish Crime the Old-Fashioned Way

Albany County DA plans to abolish program offering restorative justice as an alternative to lock-’em-up-as-usual

When Homer Bosh first heard the news that a teenager had broken into his truck, shattered the window and stolen his radio, he wanted revenge.

“I wanted to just get my hands on him,” said Bosh, “see to it that he paid for what he did, go to jail and everything.”

But when he saw that the criminal was a black youth, he had a change of heart. Bosh went to the judge and requested that the youth be released to his custody.

“Rather than see this kid behind bars,” said Bosh, “I asked that he come and work for me at my moving company. I realized that everyone needs a second chance, and jail wouldn’t have taught him anything.”

It was at this point that the judge introduced Bosh to a program called restorative justice. “I had never heard of this before,” Bosh said, “but it was through this that I sat down with the youth and the people from restorative justice to work out an alternative punishment for his crime.”

The youth ended up working at Bosh’s moving company for two months to pay off the damage he did to the truck, rather than going to jail.

The concept of victim and offender sitting down face-to-face and working out an alternative sentence to repair the damage done by the crime is known as restorative justice.

For the last two years, a number of community groups have been working with the Albany County District Attorney’s office to get a federally funded restorative justice program off the ground. But many fear that the district attorney’s office is planning to abolish the progressive program before it has a chance to work in the inner city.

“This can be a very threatening concept [to the judicial establishment], because you are empowering the community to handle crime,” said Isla Roona, coordinator of Social Capital Development Corporation. “It redefines everyone’s role and completely changes the power structure.”

Community activists Dennis Mosely and John Cutro first introduced restorative justice in Albany 10 years ago, with an informal program not connected with the judicial system. But just two years ago, Roona wrote up a grant proposal with the district attorney’s office to get federal money to start a Community Prosecution Initiative. Through this grant, which the county received in May 2001, funding was provided for restorative justice. Referrals to restorative justice come from prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices, and court personnel.

The program gives equal attention to the victim and the community affected by the crime instead of focusing only on punishing a criminal. The offender, the victim and the community all have some say in the outcome.

Roona said that the district attorney’s office is now rewriting the grant to eliminate funding for community groups like hers to take part in the program, and to minimize restorative justice’s role in the court system.

“They want to have total control over how the program works,” said Roona. “They want to decide who takes part in this and who doesn’t. But without community involvement, you don’t have restorative justice.”

District Attorney Paul Clyne did not dispute the fact that the Community Initiative Grant is being rewritten and that the role of restorative justice in the judicial system will be diminished. He also said that future plans do not include having independent contractors involved in the grant’s administration. However, he contends that the reason for the changes is simply that the restorative justice program is not working.

“Originally we were open to the idea of restorative justice,” said Clyne. “We gave it a shot and found this isn’t the direction we want to go. So we’re reorganizing the grant to change the emphasis to deal with a more traditional model. We are not going to have an independent contractor involved. We are going to implement the program ourselves.”

Clyne said that this decision does not mean his office wants to eliminate community involvement. One of the problems with how the program ran in the past, he said, was that it did not engage the community.

“One example of this is just the sheer number of cases that were being run through the system,” said Clyne. “There is place for restorative justice, but I think that the expanse of its role as originally planned has shrunken considerably.”

But Roona said that Clyne’s office stopped showing support for the program long before they started to rewrite the grant. For one, she said, the district attorney’s office stopped sending cases to restorative justice. “I think we got two referrals in the past year,” said Roona. “We also wanted to work with more inner-city cases but we were told that this program works best with kids in the suburbs.”

Critics allege that racial bias is behind the DA’s office decision to focus on suburban offenders—especially since the grant was supposed to target inner-city youth, who generally are more vulnerable to becoming mired in the criminal-justice system. “It’s overtly racist,” said Roona.

Many supporters of restorative justice argue that one year is simply not enough time to determine if the program is a success or not. “Restorative justice looks to change the entire way that our judicial system is viewed and managed,” said Mosley. “To say after just one year that the program isn’t working is just not enough time to decide. We’re talking about changing an entire way of thinking.”

Like it or not, Clyne said, he has the final say in the outcome of the program. “As the DA, I am responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases in the county of Albany,” said Clyne. “The whole point of restructuring is very simple. We looked at it and we feel it has not been a success.”

But Michael Roona, executive director of Social Capital Development Corporation, isn’t buying Clyne’s explanation.

“Restorative justice empowers the community at the expense of bureaucracy,” said Roona. “It’s reasonable to assume that bureaucracy would do whatever is in their power to protect its turf. This whole situation is about power and control.”

—Nancy Guerin

The Spying Game

New York Civil Liberties Union adds its voice to the outrage over government-proposed citizen-surveillance program

They’re watching. From their driver’s seats on the highways, they’re looking for suspicious activity. In the bucket trucks, up the telephone polls, they’re scanning for unusual behavior. On the docks, in the mailroom, reading your meter. . . . They’re watching, all of them, government spies under the guise of public service, on the watch for goings-on in opposition to the status quo.

CliffNotes from 1984? According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, such would be the real-life fears of American citizens in 2002 should Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) not be stricken from the federal Homeland Security Bill.

“Operation TIPS is an invitation by government for citizens to spy on family, friends and neighbors for dubious gain, and represents an enormous loss of personal privacy,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director for the NYCLU. “The program smacks of the 1950s McCarthy incantation, ‘If your mommy is a Commie, better turn her in.’ ”

Should it see the light of day, Operation TIPS, a branch of President George W. Bush’s newly formed Citizen Corps program, would call upon 1 million U.S. utility workers to become the eyes and ears of the government. These workers would keep authorities privy to unsavory activities with possible terrorist implications.

A disturbing historical comparison has been made between Operation Tips and the American Protective League, the Department of Justice-sanctioned volunteer spy organization reporting any and all things un-American during World War I. That organization reportedly used such methods as tar and feathers, beatings, and forcing those who were suspected of disloyalty to kiss the flag.

Operation TIPS would enlist members of specific industries, such as truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors, mail carriers, utility meter readers, ship captains and port personnel, rather than the APL’s badge-wearing private citizens.

But according to the Citizens Preparedness Guide, the how-to-combat-terrorism handbook released by the National Crime Prevention Council and the DOJ following the Sept. 11 attacks, the discretion individual TIPSters should use is vaguely defined:

“Look out for suspicious activities such as unusual conduct in your neighborhood.” Individuals are asked to report to law enforcement “if a behavior or an event seems to be outside the norm or is frightening.”

Concerning the reliability of tips gathered at large and with such ambiguous guidelines, a spokeswoman for Attorney General John Ashcroft said the expected success of Operation TIPS could be likened to that of Fox Television’s America’s Most Wanted.

“In a USA Today article, John Walsh [host of AMW] said he is very in favor of the program, and through all the years he has hosted the show, callers were very responsible with the information they have given,” said Ashcroft spokeswoman Barbara Comstock.

The federally proposed initiative would act as a routing agent for reports of possible terrorist activity to various law enforcement agencies. Operation TIPS would not be used to report emergency information, but would merely be a tool through which the unusual could be reported.

“A trucker calls in and sees abandoned trucks under every bridge, and this would be forwarded to local police,” Comstock said. “Operation TIPS is based on the current citizens’-watch programs like Highway Watch and Coastal Watch.”

In the programs mentioned by Comstock, truck drivers or waterways workers would alert local authorities with information regarding dangerous transportation activities or changing road conditions.

Although Operation TIPS was criticized in House debates, and the Senate will hold off on deciding the fate of its Homeland Security Bill until after summer recess, the attorney general’s office is looking to move forward with the program.

“The House passed their bill and eliminated funding, but the Senate has not yet voted,” Comstock said. “We will continue to work with Congress on this. We are still working on the program and want to be able to maximize the amount of information we can collect.”

The attorney general’s decision to continue with Operation TIPS has raised the ire of the NYCLU, which would move forward with plans of its own should the need arise.

“This is a program so outlandish it hasn’t even received an enthusiastic response in Congress,” said Lieberman. “If the government decides to move forward with this, they would be overstepping their authority, and we would move forward with legal action. This administration cannot and should not be permitted to ignore Congress.”

Even though the program faces an uphill battle in Washington, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), in a letter to Ashcroft, recommended that legislation prohibit “[any] and all activities of the Federal Government to implement the proposed component program of the Citizen Corps known as Operation TIPS.” The NYCLU worries that if the Senate’s legislation doesn’t directly addresses the program, there is still a chance Operation TIPS could see life.

“This is an attempt by the government to prey on the fears of the public and destroy the privacy so fundamental to a free society,” Lieberman said. “This would have an enormous chilling effect on unpopular speech and thoughts.”

—Travis Durfee

Take the Money and Regret It Later

Critics slam organization offering drug addicts $200 to submit to sterilization or long-term birth control

For Lisa, the eight years she spent living in California addicted to crack cocaine seems like a different life. In the past two years, she has gotten clean, and has moved to Albany to be close to her family. She now works a 9-to-5 job.

“In many ways, I am a completely different person,” said Lisa, who requested that her real name be withheld. “Believe it or not, I don’t have too many regrets, except for one.”

That one regret is over something that took place a few years ago, when Lisa agreed to participate in a program that pays addicts to submit to sterilization or long-term birth control in exchange for $200.

“It is not like I was coerced in anyway to have my tubes tied,” said Lisa, who chose tubal ligation, a permanent form of birth control. “But when you are dealing with an active addict and money, it doesn’t take much to convince a person to do anything. It’s always ‘act first and think later.’ ”

The organization that Lisa got involved with is called C.R.A.C.K., Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity. Based in Orange County, California, the group offers cash incentives for women who are addicted to drugs and alcohol to use long-term or permanent birth control.

“It makes far greater sense to spend $200 now,” said Barbara Harris, founder and director of C.R.A.C.K, “to prevent an addict from getting pregnant, rather then spending millions after she has a baby that needs serious medical care and a lifetime of support. . . . It is better that they are not conceived.”

Harris started the program in 1997 after she adopted four babies addicted to crack cocaine. She first lobbied in California for legislation that would require addicts to submit to long-term birth control. After that attempt failed, she started C.R.A.C.K. on her own, with most of the funding coming from private donations.

“There are too many kids who are born and who have serious complications,” said Harris. “Even for those who are able to overcome prenatal neglect, they go on to foster homes. Then, at age 18, they become homeless. At least, if people are on birth control, they won’t get pregnant and give birth to a baby that is only going to be taken away from them anyway.”

But not everyone sees Harris’ program in such a favorable light. Many groups, including the National Black Women’s Health Project, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Family Watch, American Public Health Association and Planned Parenthood, are outraged by the project. Some have claimed that it is a form of eugenics. Many groups have posted warnings on their Web sites that the program targets communities of color and poor people with coercive population-control strategies.

“I think it is people playing God when they try to stipulate who needs to not have children, who needs to have children,” said Patricia Austin, a former addiction counselor at Whitney Young Health Center’s methadone clinic in Albany. “This is a form of eugenics when you target one particular population of people.” Austin said money alone is going to get a lot of women to do it because they are addicted to drugs, and addicts are not in a healthy mindset to make these kinds of decisions.

Harris’ response is that if you can’t trust a woman with a reproductive choice, how can you trust her with a baby?

“I think it’s racist to say that I am just targeting black people or poor people because that is saying that only black or poor people are addicts,” said Harris. “It’s not fair to these kids that are born with the cards stacked against them and they don’t stand a chance.”

So far, C.R.A.C.K. does not have a local chapter. But Harris said she is actively seeking volunteers in New York to help her with the organization. The program has expanded since 1997 to 27 states; the closest chapter is in New Jersey. Harris said that close to 800 women have participated in the program nationwide.

Harris stands firm in her conviction that addicts should not be having babies, calling it a form of child abuse.

Blue Carreker, director of public affairs and marketing for Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood, disagrees. “We certainly believe that the use of contraception is a personal decision that should never be coerced financially,” said Carreker. “C.R.A.C.K. is really in opposition to that by trying to offer financial incentives to convince women, who are not necessarily in a position to participate in fully informed consent, to make a decision concerning their reproductive health.”


Time Is Ticking

Joe Putrock

You may think your eyes are playing tricks on you, but believe it or not, the revolving Key Bank clock on the corner of Lark Street and Central Avenue—broken for as long as many of us can remember—is no longer stuck on 7:25. Last Tuesday, Key Bank replaced the broken staple with a new timepiece. But you won’t see Arabic numerals on this new fixture, which means that many of you may have to refresh your skills in the Roman-numeral department.

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