Mass Incarceration NYC

Common Justice 2024 Legislative Priority Spotlight: The Treatment Not Jail Act

By Alice Hamblett on March, 22 2024

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Prisons and jails have and will continue to fail to keep us safe. Instead, they foster violence and hardship at the cost of the state and, even worse, New Yorkers’ lives. The Treatment Not Jail Act, S.1976A (Ramos)/A.1263A (Forrest), provides a tangible solution with tremendous promise. It will likely divert 1,300 people from state prison and provide 2,200 with treatment rather than a jail sentence in New York City. The legislation will likely save the state approximately $908 million in New York City jail costs and approximately $894 million in prison costs over the course of only five years. It is abundantly clear that the Treatment Not Jail Act, a piece of commonsense legislation, has languished for far too long in Albany. 

Rikers Island is one of the largest mental health care providers in the United States. Meanwhile, 83% of people in New York State’s prisons struggle with substance use disorder. These carceral facilities are home to brutal conditions and medical neglect, resulting in extensive harm and even death. Currently, drug courts, which are statutorily required in every county in the state, as well as other ad-hoc courts such as veterans’ courts and mental health courts, provide a glimmer of hope for New Yorkers seeking treatment as an alternative to incarceration.  

The Treatment Not Jail Act builds upon this existing model by requiring treatment courts in every county in the state to also meet the needs of those with mental health needs and functional impairments such as dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and intellectual disabilities. In addition, this bill increases protections for participants, removes barriers to engagement, and incorporates evidence-based practices, such as participant and clinician designed treatment plans, certified peers, and harm reduction, to improve outcomes.   

Common Justice supports this bill because we know that it will bring us closer to safety and reduce reliance on incarceration. If the New York State Legislature passes and if Governor Hochul signs into law the Treatment Not Jail Act, more New Yorkers will have the opportunity to resolve their criminal legal system involvement without incarceration or detention. Prisons and jails foster the four core drivers of violence: shame, isolation, exposure to violence, and a diminished ability to meet one’s economic needs. In contrast, well-designed treatment courts, as proposed by the Treatment Not Jails Act, provide participants with rigorous support and the ability to maintain connections with their community.  

In addition, the Treatment Not Jail Act expands eligibility for judicial diversion to those with felony conviction histories and who allegedly committed Class A felonies. As the first alternative to incarceration and victim services provider in the country to address violent felonies in adult courts, we at Common Justice know that we will not achieve safety by limiting opportunities based on the degree of harm caused. Research even demonstrates that those charged with violent felonies are just as successful in treatment courts as those charged with non-violent felonies. To foster both safety and accountability, we must meet the needs of those who have committed serious violence, not thoughtlessly incarcerate them. The Treatment Not Jail Act does just that.  

Finally, contrary to popular narratives that place victims and survivors of violence in direct opposition to criminal legal system reforms, promoting judicial diversion and expanding access to treatment align with the expressed wants and needs of those who have suffered from harm. For example, in the 2022 report “Crime Survivors Speak,” the Alliance for Safety and Justice found that, “nearly 7 out of 10 victims prefer reducing the number of people in jail by releasing those who can safely await trial in the community or serve their sentence through diversion, community service, or treatment programs over keeping people in jail.” As a victim services provider, Common Justice implores state lawmakers to center the voices of victims and survivors, who clearly see the value of judicial diversion in promoting public safety.  

Politicians across New York State are eager to address public safety, underscoring that their constituencies live in fear of violence. However, many remain shortsighted when it comes to investing in tangible solutions to increase public safety. For example, though introduced during the 2019-2020 legislative session and each thereafter, the Treatment Not Jail Act, has yet to pass through the State Legislature. This legislation, which meets the expressed desires of survivors of violence, would make New York State safer by providing additional opportunities for treatment to those involved in the criminal legal system. 

At the root of the Treatment Not Jail Act is the principle of care, for those who have been continuously ignored and find themselves enmeshed in the criminal legal system as well as for our communities and their safety. Care is antithetical to violence. To make a safer New York, lawmakers must heed the calls of advocates and survivors and expeditiously pass the Treatment Not Jail Act. The time is now.  

Visit this link learn more about the Treatment Not Jail Act.  


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