A Viable Substitute For Incarceration

May 4, 2015 | Khalil Cumberbatch, Legal Action Center


We have all heard the statistic that the United States accounts for approximately 5% of the world’s population and yet accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, ahead of all other industrialized nations combined.

We have all heard the statistic that the United States accounts for approximately 5% of the world’s population and yet accounts for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, ahead of all other industrialized nations combined.

This troubling statistic has resulted in growing attention from people of all races, age groups, and socioeconomic classes from around the country to the need for new options that will reduce the number of people cycling through the legal and jail systems. One such option is the use of alternatives to incarceration (ATI) and reentry programs that have already proven to be successful.

In New York state, access to ATI programming that addresses issues including mental health, addiction treatment, employment readiness, housing, and therapy has led to a reduction in the number of inmates, from 73,233 at the end of 1999 to 53,550 in 2013, a reduction of over 25%.1, 2 Additionally, in a recent analysis released by the Sentencing Project, 34 of the 50 states have seen reductions in their incarcerated population from the high-water mark, with New York’s decrease ranking second, behind only New Jersey’s.

In New York state, the ATI/Reentry Coalition, a coalition of eleven nonprofit organizations—of which my organization, the Legal Action Center, is a member—has spent almost a decade advocating for the continuation and expansion of ATI programming as one of the key tools for continuing to reduce the funneling of people through an already-stretched criminal justice system. The Coalition is able to do this work thanks to the immense support from the NYS Governor’s Office, state legislators, and New York City council members, who understand the value of providing as many viable alternatives to incarceration as possible to their constituents and to the state and city.

The increased use of ATI programming has resulted in an increased awareness that crime is a symptom of underlying problems—such as mental health issues, addiction, lack of employment prospects, unstable housing, and so on—and that the most effective approach is therefore not a solely punitive one, but one that addresses these underlying problems. ATI programs strengthen families and communities, all of which are negatively impacted by crime, by helping to deal with the underlying issues, which results in a positive cycle for individuals, families, and communities. ATI programs also help reduce crime, thus protecting those same communities.

ATI programs have proven to be a viable substitute for prison and/or jail. These programs save taxpayer dollars, as incarceration is expensive3 and can create health-related issues for inmates, particularly in overcrowded jails and prisons. Furthermore, these programs are supported by the general public; according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), eight in 10 adults believe that ATI (probation, restitution, community service, and/or rehabilitative services) is the most appropriate sentence for nonviolent, non-serious offenders, and that prison or jail should only be used if these alternatives fail.

In New York state, the ATI/Reentry Coalition will continue to passionately advocate for the continued use of ATI programming that provides beneficial outcomes to the court system, victims, defendants, family members, and communities.

Readers who would like to learn more about the ATI/Reentry Coalition’s work in New York City can click here to access the 2015 annual report.

Khalil A. Cumberbatch is a formerly incarcerated advocate for social justice movements in the New York City area. He has worked with the reentry community in New York City since 2010, when he was released after serving almost seven years in the New York state prison system. Since his release, Khalil has worked with various nonprofits as a service provider, policy analytic advisor, board member, collaborator, and consultant.

Khalil graduated from City University of New York–Lehman College’s Master of Social Work program in 2014. He currently serves as a policy associate for the Legal Action Center, the only nonprofit law and policy organization in the United States whose sole mission is to fight discrimination against people with histories of addiction, HIV/AIDS, or criminal records, and to advocate for sound public policies in these areas.


1 Beck, A. (2000). Bureau of justice statistics bulletin: Prisoners in 1999 (NCJ 183476). Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics website: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=928

2 Carson, E. A. (2014). Prisoners in 2013 (NCJ 247282). Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics website: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5109

3 Administrative Office of the United States Courts. (2011, June 23). Newly available: Costs of incarceration and supervision in FY 2010 [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.uscourts.gov/News/NewsView/11-06-23/Newly_Available_Costs_of_Incarceration_and_Supervision_in_FY_2010.aspx