Program Spotlight: newSTART

In October 2017, CASES expanded its successful Manhattan START program as newSTART [1], a short-term alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) program for men and women facing up to 30 days in jail for a misdemeanor offense in Manhattan Criminal Court. This year, newSTART will help keep nearly 2,000 people off Rikers Island, many of whom have unmet mental health treatment needs and a history of chronic involvement in the criminal justice system. newSTART helps eligible men and women access support services and treatment including housing, employment, benefits assistance, and physical and mental health services—with a focus on helping clients to improve the quality of their lives while addressing factors that could otherwise contribute to future justice involvement.

How newSTART Works to Help People with Frequent Low-Level Justice-Involvement

For those with a history of low-level offenses, newSTART offers an opportunity to receive the targeted support they need to make meaningful changes and break the cycle of recidivism. Rodney, a Vietnam veteran who recently completed a five-day newSTART mandate, is one example of the impact of the program on people with high needs and frequent justice-involvement. Rodney has been arrested more than 100 times for low-level offenses and has been in and out of Rikers for sentences ranging from five to 30 days. As an alternative to another short stay at Rikers, a judge assigned Rodney to a five-day newSTART mandate with a 20-day jail alternative, meaning he could either attend the program for the full five days or face 20 days of jail time. Rodney suffers from depression, anxiety, and PTSD and has been homeless for many years. Through newSTART, he has begun to see a therapist and psychiatrist at CASES’ in Central Harlem, treatment services covered by Medicaid, which Rodney successfully applied for with the help of his newSTART case worker. After completing his five-day mandate, Rodney has voluntarily continued to attend clinical mental health and substance use services at CASES’ Nathaniel Clinic [2] and is working with newSTART to secure permanent housing.

newSTART’s Five ATI Tracks and Voluntary Longer-Term Services

newSTART’s ATI model provides short-term services that aim to address the immediate, pressing needs of the men and women diverted to the program. For Rodney, these services included benefits assistance, housing support, and counseling and psychiatric services. However, every newSTART participant has different needs requiring different, individually-tailored support. The short-term nature of the program means newSTART staff must act quickly to determine how best to help the participant. Almost 60% of newSTART participants are homeless, and almost 90% are unemployed. In addition, many participants have unmet mental health and/or substance use treatment needs. Because of the especially high needs of newSTART participants, program staff start with the basics when determining how best to help participants, including asking if they are hungry, if they have a coat, and if they feel safe where they sleep at night. A large majority of newSTART participants are diverted to the program after being charged with low-level offenses that are often a factor of their circumstances, including homelessness, joblessness, and addiction.

newSTART expanded START’s original two tracks to include a total of five specialized service tracks lasting one, three, or five days. While a judge decided Rodney required a five-day mandate, some eligible men and women are diverted to a one-day track that can be completed at the Manhattan Criminal Court on the same day. During this one-day ATI, newSTART staff use motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral interventions to help the participant identify needs and connect to relevant community resources. Longer newSTART service tracks include Daytime Custody, Community Case Management, Community Social Service, and the Community Vocational and Employment track, through which participants are enrolled in the Center for Employment Opportunity’s [3] Pathways to Employment program. In these longer tracks and depending on their unique needs and goals, participants might receive a clinical assessment and linkages to community services or counseling, engage in community service, and/or participate in job-readiness and skill-building training. All newSTART participants have the option to continue services with the program after completing their mandate, either by continuing to work with their case manager, attending group counseling, or taking advantage of services at CASES’ Nathaniel Clinic.

Every day, newSTART staff offer evidence-based group counseling services at CASES’ Central Harlem location, including an art therapy group and groups that focus on trauma and substance use. Tanya, a recent newSTART participant who completed a five-day mandate with the program, has received substance use counseling services including in CASES’ art therapy group. Many years ago, Tanya was in a car accident that resulted in a back injury and head trauma. After being prescribed painkillers for these injuries, Tanya developed an opioid addiction that has changed the course of her life. Tanya has been arrested four times in the past year, and her most recent arrest was for stealing a pair of headphones from a department store. Rather than sending her to Rikers for a short sentence, the judge mandated Tanya to newSTART where she has received mental health and substance use counseling and applied to supportive housing services. Tanya has voluntarily continued to work with her social worker, attend her art therapy group, and receive individual counseling months after fulfilling her court-mandated ATI requirements.

newSTART Directly Supports the Effort to Close Rikers Island

Rodney and Tanya are only two examples of the thousands of people who will benefit this year from participation in newSTART. As the City ramps up its efforts to close Rikers Island by 2027, programs like newSTART—along with other CASES’ programs such as Supervised Release, an alternative to monetary bail—will play a critical role in reducing the daily population at Rikers, both by diverting individuals from the jail who can be better served in the community and by reducing recidivism among a group of individuals with high rates of justice-involvement. newSTART serves people with especially high needs in especially difficult circumstances. While these challenges often cannot be resolved in five days or fewer, CASES’ newSTART program gives people the opportunity to form connections with social workers, case managers, counselors, and community organizations that can help them to take meaningful, positive steps toward lasting change.