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National Perspective | JUSTICE

N.Y. Judge Finds Caring Can Help in Crime Fight

Treatment and rehabilitation are favored over punishment. Lawyers on both sides believe the approach works.

November 05, 1998|LISA MEYER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Judge Charles Posner steps down from his bench and approaches a young woman who will not look up.

"Hello," he says. She does not answer. She does not move. She has been in jail for two weeks.

Posner tells her he wants to enroll her in a residential drug treatment program and needs her Social Security number and consent to look at her medical records.

She refuses to acknowledge that he is even there.

"It's painful to me," he says later. "She was supposed to go to a program today. All of a sudden, she shuts down and stops talking."

Posner does not run a typical criminal court. It is more like a mini-treatment center. Most of those who appear before him are accused of minor crimes. But he believes that those crimes often signal more serious problems: substance abuse, poverty or mental illness. He tries to enroll nonviolent offenders in alcohol, drug, vocational and mental health programs. That way, he says, they are less likely to end up in jail again.

Two years ago, Posner was appointed to New York City's criminal court by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has gained a national reputation for being tough on criminals. In the last four years, the number of inmates admitted to city jails has increased 25% and reached a record high. Giuliani, a Republican, says he wants to improve the quality of life in New York. As a criminal court judge and a Democrat, Posner is helping Giuliani stop crime, but he is doing so with something Giuliani might not favor: rehabilitation.

"Is caring weakness?" Posner asks. "No. It's a better form of justice. The mayor's tactic may be to hit [criminals] over the head. I may be more treatment oriented . . . but we are not in each other's jobs. If we were in each other's jobs, we would probably do each other's jobs similarly."

Defense attorneys and prosecutors alike believe Posner's innovative work reduces recidivism.

A stout, balding man of 49, the judge sits on an elevated platform behind a clean wooden desk in a cavernous courtroom that amplifies his deep, soft voice. His brown eyes moisten easily when he speaks to people.

When Posner was 16, he enrolled in college but dropped out a year later and spent a lonely, aimless period abusing alcohol.

"So I understand where [the defendants] are coming from," Posner says. "It doesn't make me excuse [bad] conduct. It makes me less likely to excuse it in a lot of ways. I've eaten out of garbage cans. I've been there." So, Posner reasons, if he pulled himself up, so can the defendant.

A middle-age Orthodox Jewish man wearing a yarmulke stands in the well of the court. He is accused of punching somebody. He has multiple drug and mental problems. Posner calls the defense lawyer, prosecutor and a drug treatment counselor up to his bench. Fifteen to 30 days in jail will not help, Posner decides. He needs counseling.

If the defendant pleads guilty to the charge, Posner will place him in treatment. If he fails to complete the program, Posner can jail him because he has agreed to plead guilty.

It is a coercive model, Posner explains. If the defendant finishes the program, Posner will dismiss the charge. The hoped-for result, Posner says, is a taxpaying citizen rather than a criminal who keeps returning to jail.

In one hand, Posner says, he holds strong justice and, in the other, compassion. "It's a very delicate balance of who to uplift and who to slap down.

"This is not a numbers game," he says. "This is effectively dealing with offenders to make sure that there is an appropriate deposition. If it's got to be jail, it's jail. But jail is usually the last resort. There are a whole panoply of programs, conditional discharges, probation and non-incarceratory actions that I can take. I am a judge who listens."

In one day, Posner will address 150 to 200 cases.

"Court is not a static bunch of a paper," he says. "It has a life of its own. At the end of each day, I ask myself: 'Have I made an impact? Have I made the lives of the people in this city any better?' "

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