BATAVIA, N.Y. — They call it Genesee Justice, a system of alternative sentencing that seems to be working in a rural area of western New York that is keenly aware of the consequences of prison overcrowding.
Just 10 miles down the road on the Wyoming County line lies Attica, where overcrowding fueled an inmate uprising in 1971 that left 43 dead, one of the nation's bloodiest prison riots ever.
But jails are not crowded today in Genesee County, mainly because the sheriff, the local judges and even many of the victims of crime believe that a prison sentence does not necessarily mean justice has been served.
Instead of being placed behind bars, many convicted felons--usually first-time offenders--are sent out into the community to renovate churches, clean parks or build town halls. More than 120 different agencies are eager to accept the free labor, said Dennis Wittman, Genesee County's community service and victim assistance coordinator.
"We've had over 100,000 hours of community service and not a single agency has been ripped off," he said. "I'm telling you, it works."
Criminals also can be placed under house arrest. They can be forced to go to counseling and make restitution to their victims. In some cases, they also meet their victim and hear about the sorrow they caused.
In the last 5 1/2 years, more than 1,000 criminals--mostly first-time offenders charged with crimes ranging from disorderly conduct to sexual abuse--have been kept out of jail in Genesee County. Only about 10% to 15% wound up in front of a judge again, Wittman said, while about 35 failed to fulfill their community service and were incarcerated.
30 Judges Participate
All levels of the judicial system participate in the program, including about 30 city, town, village and county judges.
Genesee Justice has been so successful, Wittman said, that more than 400 counties and communities in six countries and 22 states have sought more information about how the system works.
Although Attica's population has been carefully monitored since that 1971 riot, the problem of prison overcrowding has become a crisis across the nation.
Local and state governments have already appropriated $25 billion to add 359,000 new inmate beds in coming years, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Even at that building pace, the agency projects that prison and jail overcrowding will continue to be a problem into the 21st Century.
'Build More Cells'
"There are so many myths and everyone just falls right in line with them," Wittman said. "Build more cells, build more prisons. Why isn't the emphasis on why we have jail overcrowding? Are there any solutions? We think the answer is yes."
Genesee County authorities have found that victims of crime do not always want vengeance. Sometimes they sit across a table from the criminal and ask him to apologize.
Adell Booker, 31, whose husband and three young sons were killed two years ago in an accident caused by a driver who had been drinking, is one victim who decided against a jail sentence.
"I think it was just the realization of how much the legal system can do," she said. "What good would sending him to jail do?"
Instead, she recommended to the judge that the 22-year-old driver of the car be put on five years' probation, have his driver's license suspended, do 300 hours of community service and pay her for the funeral and cemetery expenses.
"I think this sentence is harder than just going to jail and sitting," said Booker, who, along with her infant daughter, was injured in the crash.
Her case is a good example of what makes the Genesee Justice program different from other types of alternative sentencing methods being used around the country, Wittman said.
"The most important thing is attending to the victim," he said. "Once you do that, and do it intensively, incredible things can happen."
Effect of Crime Told
In Genesee County, it is not unusual for a judge to receive a thick stack of papers, 60 to 100 pages, from a victim and his or her friends and relatives describing the effect of a crime on them.
All victims are told about the realities of the justice system, especially about how prison overcrowding tends to shorten sentences.
"Some believe that in remembrance of their loved ones there's a better way to do justice," Wittman said. "Some get over the vengeance and the anger and if they believe the person is a remorseful figure, what's the sense of throwing him in the slammer."
$20,000 a Year
Wittman tells victims and their families that it costs about $20,000 to send someone to prison for a year. The cost of putting an offender on probation for five years, having a period of house arrest, sending him to counseling and requiring some community service is $3,000 a year.
People still go to jail in Genesee County, Wittman said, but mostly just the people who belong there.