Is It Worth It?

Bronx Community Solutions receives funding from multiple sources, including the State of New York, the City of New York, the Booth Ferris Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (which selected BCS as one of ten grantees for its Community-Based Problem-Solving Criminal Justice Initiative).

Is it a good investment? That’s the tough, but important, question to ask. And it’s a particularly important question for other jurisdictions that may be considering adopting their own version of Bronx Community Solutions.

One way of answering the cost question is to note the advantages of scale: with close to a thousand participants entering our program each month, we cost only about $100 per person. In exchange, we provide an extensive set of services – pre-court screening of cases, participant intake and scheduling, compliance monitoring, in-house social service classes and community service projects, referrals to other programs and follow-up with individuals interested in voluntary services.

That’s a pretty big bang for the buck, and we can tell a pretty impressive story about the number of intake interviews we conducted, compliance phone calls made, letters sent, social service classes held and community service projects organized, just to name a few examples.

But the “counting widgets” approach to cost-benefit analysis has become less popular in recent years, and for good reason. It helps define what we do, but not the benefits of our approach. And to be fair, before Bronx Community Solutions existed, a limited number of the functions described above were being provided by the court system or its partners, at lesser cost.

So the real question becomes: compared to what came before it, do the benefits of Bronx Community Solutions exceed its costs?

Here are four examples of benefits the project seeks to create:

Increased compliance with court orders
Before Bronx Community Solutions began, compliance with court-ordered alternatives stood at about 50 percent, not an unusual rate for large urban jurisdictions. There are a number of associated costs to non-compliance, not least of which is a sense of cynicism among criminal justice professionals that participants are not taking the court seriously. There's also the tangible cost of executing and enforcing warrants for non-compliance. In our first year of operations, compliance rates increased to 70 percent, a 40 percent improvement.

Additional sentencing options
When we began in the Bronx, judges had a limited number of sentencing options at their disposal for low-level offenders. For example, the court had no employment options (the service cited as a need most frequently by judges) as well as none for cases involving prostitution. Our goal is to greatly increase the number of community-based sentencing alternatives available to judges, and we've already added a number of options, such as 15 social service classes taught weekly, long-term job training mandates and a program for young girls in the sex trade. And that's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can accomplish.

Access to long-term, voluntary services
Participants mandated to Bronx Community Solutions are with us for an average of four days, a reflection of the Bronx's high volume of misdemeanor cases (50,000 in 2004). Given this short period of program participation, we're focused on encouraging participants to pursue needed services voluntarily. In 2005, five percent of participants in our program received a referral for services (in line with what similar projects report). The percentage has grown to eight percent in 2006 (over 200 participants) as we add new services to the mix.

Building public confidence in justice
A final benefit might be harder to capture in dollars and cents. Surveys of public opinion show that courts score low in terms of public trust and confidence, particularly among African-Americans and Hispanics. However, large majorities of survey respondents respond favorably to courts adopting problem-solving techniques like hiring counselors and social workers. This suggests that programs like Bronx Community Solutions can go a long way towards strengthening the vitality of state courts as a democratic institution.

There are other potential benefits that I haven't mentioned yet, such as fewer short-term jail sentences, reduced redicivism and greater job satisfaction among court players. Those are complicated questions, and we'll know more about impacts in those areas in the months ahead.

How does this all add up? I think hard-nosed administrators should proceed cautiously before taking on an initiative like Bronx Community Solutions, or making other investments in problem-solving. It's hard work, and it takes an up-front investment of time and money.

Still, I think the case for a project like Bronx Community Solutions rests on realism. Just as the hard-nosed administrator has to be realistic about the costs of any new approach, she also has to consider the costs of "business as usual" when it comes to addressing low-level criminal offending. Unfortunately, that may be the easiest case to make.