The Women’s Prison Association’s (WPA) JusticeHome program is an intensive, home-based gender-responsive alternative to incarceration (ATI) for women facing incarceration for at least six months, and, more commonly for one to four years, as a result of felony charges. The program is designed to promote public safety by reducing a defendant’s likelihood of engaging in future criminal behavior. Clients benefit from gender-specific, evidence-based approaches and interventions in an environment where new, prosocial and adaptive behaviors will determine long-term stability and abstinence from crime. The JusticeHome concept is based on the notion that clients’ daily lives within their own communities offer countless opportunities to practice and refine new skills, while also preventing the disruption of homelessness and family separation—including placement of children in foster care—that can happen when women are incarcerated.
JusticeHome is designed to promote public safety by reducing an individual defendant’s likelihood of engaging in future criminal behavior.
Since its founding in 1845, the Women’s Prison Association has served women who wanted to create lives that were not forever limited by their criminal justice involvement. In its earliest years, WPA operated a halfway house for women released from New York jails and prisons. Women were trained to perform sewing, laundry and other household work and placed for employment where they could support themselves legally. Since then, women continue to seek WPA’s assistance with managing the many demands in their lives, in addition to criminal court mandates. In the course of WPA’s work, women have shared their experiences of poverty, mental illness, trauma, domestic violence, limited educational achievement, absence of employment, struggles with parenting and other family relationships, chronic illness, and unsafe housing. WPA’s implementation of the Women’s Risk and Needs Assessment (WRNA), a gender-specific risk and needs assessment for women, revealed that these experiences are, largely, the drivers of their criminal behavior. Rarely is one of their clients arrested for behaviors that directly reflect those underlying conditions; rather, women are usually arrested for drug or property crimes in furtherance of an immediate need for physical or psychological relief. Faced with a woman who is charged with a drug or property crime, and who often has prior convictions, many judges express frustration at the futility of another jail sentence, recognizing the inevitability of seeing the woman again, likely on similar charges.
For many years, WPA operated a residential ATI, where women worked with a case manager and participated in household activities in addition to completing drug treatment and other mandates in the community. Women in the residential ATI program faced many of the same reentry challenges—securing safe affordable housing, finding and keeping a job, and managing the challenges of children and family. Program participants were tremendously successful at achieving their goals, and most graduated from the program and avoided additional criminal involvement. After the program was forced to close due to funding cuts, WPA pursued implementation of JusticeHome to build on what worked at their residential ATI, as well as other community-based programs.
The JusticeHome program benefits families and communities by using well-planned strategies such as close community supervision and support throughout a woman’s participation; continual assessment to address family, household and community risk factors; and engagement and coordination with other service providers and court representatives to support a woman’s success.
Interview with the Women’s Prison Association Executive Director Georgia Lerner
Q What inspired you to begin the JusticeHome program?
A We felt there were some challenges with reentry that contributed to a woman’s return to the criminal justice system. We found, through our experience operating a family preservation/foster care prevention program, that over the course of the first 10 years, families were successfully staying together and women were not using drugs. This program used an intensive home-based case management model to partner with families in order to improve child protective factors and address the drug use and mental illness that were creating risk to their children. More recently, we also began using the WRNA in some of our programs to identify women’s risk, needs and protective factors. By coupling the use of the WRNA with the intensive home-based case work, we thought we could partner more effectively with the women to build on their strengths and reduce risks that were contributing to their criminal behavior.
Q JusticeHome is a unique program where women can serve their time at home and be with their children. How did you come to this program decision?
A We thought it would be ideal to work with women in their own homes because we could avoid reentry issues and support women in their own environments. We believed it would be better if women could learn and practice skills in a real environment rather than trying to apply their knowledge and skills in a correctional environment, which, of course, is unlike the homes and communities where they will live and work after incarceration. We built on the intensive family case management program model aimed at preventing the removal of children to foster care when a mother is mentally ill and/or using illegal drugs. As I mentioned, we added a gender-specific assessment to identify risk factors and develop specific goals to address those risks as well as intensive home-based interventions, ongoing assessments of children and family well-being, and the promotion of positive parenting skills. Over time, we have learned that all of these efforts lead to increased family stability and cost much less than sending a woman to prison.
Q Can you describe how the program works? How do women learn about the program? How are they selected to participate in the program?
A The program is designed to promote public safety by reducing a woman’s likelihood of engaging in future criminal behavior. Women facing a minimum of six months of incarceration as a result of felony charges from the New York State court system are eligible to participate in this program. So far, most of our clients are women involved in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan courts.
We get referrals from the courts, district attorneys (DAs), jails, staff of agencies that work with justice-involved women in jails and other programs that conduct outreach, and women contact us directly for assistance. In New York, women know about WPA and that they can get assigned to a program instead of jail. The DA has discretion to refer women to us. Right now, we have an active caseload of 25 women.
To participate, the women in our program must have been charged with a felony. WPA does not limit the types of crimes that clients may be facing; however, the program’s funder disqualifies certain gun charges from eligibility. A potential client must be willing to address the underlying causes of her criminality/criminal behavior. If we screen someone whose major areas of risk are mental illness with active psychotic symptoms, and she’s not willing to get treatment, then she would not be a good candidate for the program. We also don’t want to limit women to articulating goals that are connected with the WRNA outcomes. We must address the criminogenic risks, but we also urge women to think of additional areas of their lives where they’d like to make constructive change. We don’t take women assessed as low risk because research does not support focusing on this population.
Q Please describe the key components of the program and the role of partner agencies in coordinating and delivering services?
A Key components of the program include:
- The application of proven, gender responsive instruments to more accurately address specific risks and strengths.
- Utilization of gender responsive and evidence-based interventions, such as cognitive behavioral treatment groups to promote healthy coping strategies and address histories of trauma.
- Use of clinical expertise to improve responsiveness to mental illness and co-occurring disorders.
- Additional opportunities to benefit families and communities through intensive home-based interventions.
- Ongoing assessment of child and family well-being.
- Support and promotion of positive parenting skills.
- Court advocacy
- Gender-informed risk assessment and evaluation
- Referrals to specialized program services
- Cross-program communication and progress monitoring
Click here for the program informational flyer.
First, we work with the courts and DAs to identify eligible women and divert them to our program in lieu of incarceration. We use instruments like the WRNA to determine their risk levels and needs and inform the development of individual goals. Her assessed needs and goals guide the development of a service plan. WPA makes referrals to specialized programs and services that are appropriate and suitable for her and coordinates access to them. Typically, clients use mental health and medical care, educational services and sobriety support/addiction treatment services, in addition to a range of other resources, such as job skills and placement services or early childhood education. WPA facilitates programming like Moving On and Seeking Safety. Moving On provides women with alternatives to criminal activity by helping them identify and mobilize personal and community resources. The Seeking Safety model of counseling was developed for trauma, substance abuse, and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to help improve coping skills and increase stabilization. We have open communication and regular case conferencing with the other community providers with whom the women are working (e.g., treatment providers) and that are simultaneously monitoring clients (e.g., DAs) to ensure they are complying with the conditions of the program. Most importantly, we work in partnership with the women to set goals and expectations for their success and have the resources and support they need to remain engaged and crime free.
Q How many women have you served in the program since it launched in 2013? What have been the results so far?
A While still early, the results so far are very promising. As of June 30, 2014, we have served a total of 30 women. In the first year, we had 11 graduates. Many of our initial referrals were young and had uncomplicated criminal histories, but our client population is now more consistent with the overall WPA population–older with predicate felonies. Of the 11 who have graduated, we have seen a reduction in all of the areas they were screened as high risk (e.g., mental illness, housing instability, education, antisocial peer association). Depending on their issues, they were assessed as low risk upon graduation.
JusticeHome is a cost-effective alternative to incarceration that reduces a woman’s risk of recidivism by 45%.
We are currently receiving three to four referrals per month. Going forward, we anticipate that 35 women will graduate each year.
Q What happens at the end of their program participation? Do the women receive additional services, programming or supervision after their case is closed?
A By the end of their participation in JusticeHome, the goal is for the women to be better able to cope with the day-to-day demands of their lives and utilize the skills they have learned to prevent future criminal justice involvement. Women do stay in touch with WPA after they have completed the program. We would like to offer some formal aftercare opportunities for them, including mentors for women who need someone to touch base with after they complete the program. We are currently exploring the possibility of training a group of volunteers for a short-term mentoring commitment with JusticeHome graduates. For now, we are holding periodic groups and welcome women to participate in other agency programs.
Q Tell us a little bit about your staff. How are they selected to work with women in the JusticeHome program? What skills are needed to be successful in working with the women in this program?
A Our staff brings varied expertise: Some are social workers, one was an attorney, and another is a credentialed substance abuse counselor. They are in close contact with women in the program and get a lot of experience doing field-based work in client’s homes and in diverse neighborhoods. Our staff meet with clients in their homes and has regular contact by phone depending on the progress the client is making and programs in which she is involved. They have to be comfortable going into people’s homes or willing to go to the jail to talk to women who have been referred or self-referred to the program. They also have to be able to go to court to advocate for the women.
Staff is expected to employ evidence-based strategies. They are trained on trauma-informed care and gender responsive approaches such as facilitating Moving On and administering the WRNA. They provide coaching and mentoring, conduct home environment assessments, and help women practice or role-play requesting services or assistance from others. These activities help our clients develop competence and confidence, and build on their success. I will say that our staff members are tireless, dedicated and creative; they have a talent for finding ways to motivate women and move mountains.
Q What are some of the challenges reported by staff supervising/working with women in their home environment? What challenges have you experienced in managing the program overall?
- Geography. The family program on which this model was developed operates in only two contiguous neighborhoods. JusticeHome operates all over New York City, and we realized that a caseload of 10 women per case manager is not realistic because of the larger geographic area to be covered. Although our cases are largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan courts, they are spread over a large area. When we started JusticeHome, we said we’d cover the entire city, but the travel from place to place is incredibly time consuming. In the future, it would make more sense to divide caseloads geographically.
- Time management. This is an obvious challenge because of the geographic issues I just mentioned, and because of the amount of time we spend with the women. It takes a lot of time to travel from one client’s home to another, complete client notes, and spend quality time mentoring clients. After one year of operation, we have learned how to distribute cases so that staff can really mentor and spend time with clients reinforcing successes.
- Documentation. It takes quite a bit of time to note the progress and challenges experienced by the women, and our work is done almost entirely in the field. Unless we prioritize the entry of notes and schedule special time slots for it, the notes remain hand-written in a notebook and don’t find their way into our automated system. To address this issue, we purchased tablets for the case managers so they can more conveniently prepare case notes while in transit from home to home.
- Resources. We need more staff members (and the funding to pay them) to meet with women in the community to encourage and track progress. With more staff we would be able to admit more women into the program, cover a larger geographic area, and be able to provide more aftercare services.
- Criminal records. This program is such a great opportunity for the women. Thus far, the DAs require the women to plead guilty to their crimes, which are later dismissed if they successfully complete the program. It would be better if the charges were deferred so that the charges don’t attach to the women’s record. Instead of hoping that charges really do get dismissed upon successful program completion and that all records are updated accordingly, it would be far better if the criminal convictions were never entered.
- Marketing. It’s also a challenge selling this program. Judges and DAs (and members of the public), at some human level, feel the desire for punishment. Sentencing someone to their home doesn’t feel like punishment. We have to work harder to shift the thinking from punishment to what makes more sense in terms of smarter uses of resources that yield better recidivism results.
When we are faced with someone who has broken the law, the question is, how should we respond in order to restore public safety and order? We know that simply sending lots of people to jail and prison does not work. We now have tools and research that help us understand the reasons behind someone’s criminal behavior and how we can intervene to help them be more successful. We need to address the issues that contributed to the women getting into trouble to begin with.
Q As a field, if we could do one thing well that would have an impact on women, what one thing would this be?
A Just one thing? I am going to talk about two:
- Increase cross-system cooperation. Agencies receive contracts to provide specific services that are not holistic in their approach. We need to break down silos and communicate and coordinate across agencies and human/social services systems rather than duplicate resources and compete with each other for funding.
- Reduce future generations’ involvement in criminal justice. The women we serve don’t have to have children to be in the program, but many do. The kinds of things we’re doing are promoting home stability and preparing kids for kindergarten, which helps to assure that they will graduate later from high school. When we put more effort into not sending people to prison, it can extend many benefits for future generations. That is a huge motivating factor: a real opportunity to change how things look for women and children in the future.
Q Is there anything else you would like to share?
A It’s much cheaper to do this type of programming. JusticeHome is a cost-effective alternative to incarceration that significantly and measurably reduces a woman’s risk of recidivism. Equally important, JusticeHome promotes development of the concrete tools and interpersonal skills that improve a woman’s quality of social interactions in the community, her experience as an employee, her abilities and practices as a mother, and her sense of future possibility for both herself and her family.