You don’t have to be an expert to recognize that the American system of justice is deeply flawed. However, if, like Jay H. Sandak, president of the Herbert and Nell Singer Foundation of Stamford, Connecticut, you happen to be a practicing attorney with nearly five decades of court experience, you might find yourself inspired to take action.
“When our foundation decided to go deeper rather than wider in our philanthropy, one of the areas upon which we decided to concentrate was restorative justice and criminal justice reform,” explains Sandak. “I am an attorney and one of the board members is a state judge; so, we are familiar with the general topic of the criminal justice system when we wear our professional, non-philanthropic hats. It’s clear that there has historically been a disparity in the way that people have been treated by the criminal justice system in the context of their economic, social, or racial status.”
So, what is restorative justice? “The restorative justice concept, basically, places more focus on the individual defendant and what is giving rise to the antisocial behavior that generated his or her criminal activities.” Sandak explains. “If we can understand and address the underlying social concerns, there’s more likelihood that we’ll have a better result for the individual and for society as a whole. This will allow us to address the challenging topic of recidivism, the revolving door that has these people going in and out of the system.”
Because Herbert and Nell Singer, the founders of the Singer Foundation, had been very active in Israel during their lifetime, the foundation’s first foray into restorative justice took the form of supporting a community court pilot program in that country. Unlike a traditional criminal court where the primary purpose is to determine guilt or innocence of the defendants and mete out the appropriate punishment for the offenses, Sandak explains, the structure and process of a community court focuses on restorative justice. “The idea is to recognize that criminal behavior affects not only the defendant and the victim but often the entire community. The process affords an opportunity to view the entire landscape and make everybody appreciate the reasons for and consequences of the criminal behavior. In particular, a defendant is encouraged to confront the consequences of his actions and how they have affected others.” The community court pilot program in Israel was an enormous success, expanding from a single demonstration court to community courts in four of Israel’s six judicial districts. “The expectation is that there’ll eventually be one in each of the six districts,” Sandak reports. “The Israeli government has indicated its support of this effort going forward, so private philanthropy will no longer be essential.”
When the Singer Foundation decided to take its restorative justice work to its home state of Connecticut, rather than trying to replicate the community court program that it helped pioneer in Israel, it took another approach. “One of the things we saw in Connecticut, which is not unlike anywhere else in the country, the vast majority of criminal cases are run-of-the-mill, non- violent, low-level crimes,” Sandak explains. “Prosecutors would look at the file, decide whether to prosecute, and then the case moves along over multiple court dates until, ultimately, there’s either a plea bargain or a trial. At the time of sentencing, everybody takes a time out to consider the individual in the context of sentencing. What’s his employment and marital status? Does he have roots in the community? Is he mentally stable? Is there an addiction issue, etc.?”
Not only was the process unjust, with the consideration of crime’s contextual factors coming only at the time of sentencing, but it was also costly. “Defendants were coming back to court three, four, or five times,” Sandak explains, “and every time they have a court appearance, they have to miss work or maybe get daycare, which means that they’re potentially losing their jobs or spending scarce resources because of this process.” And with tax payers footing the bill for all those prosecutorial hours, the cost to the state was also high.
“I met with the leaders of the criminal justice system in Connecticut, and we decided that the system seemed a little bit upside down,” Sandak says. “The review of the individual should happen at the beginning of the process, so that smarter and expeditious decisions can be made by the prosecutors.” The Singer Foundation partnered with a New York-based nonprofit, the Center for Court Innovation, which focuses on approaches to the administration of criminal justice. “They helped us create the system, and we funded a pilot program in two locations, Waterbury and Bridgeport, where we had a designated prosecutor and a social worker screening all of the cases in order to determine whether they should be prosecuted, how they should be prosecuted, and what kind of social services the defendant might need.” The state called it Early Screening Intervention (ESI). After hearing about the pilot, the state legislature decided to expand ESI to four more locations: Hartford, New Haven, Norwich, and New London. The Singer Foundation funded this expansion.
Recently, as the end of the pilot was approaching, Connecticut’s division of criminal justice issued its report to the Connecticut legislature. The outcomes were nothing short of astonishing: The statistics showed that, in comparison to control sites, the locations where the pilot was in effect saw a drastic reduction in the number of defendant court appearances. “At the control sites, the average was about 4.7 court appearances before there could be a resolution of the case,” Sandak reports. “At our pilot sites, it was just a bit over one appearance. With the early screening, many cases were resolved in the first appearance!”
Moreover, the report concluded that the fewer court appearances resulted in significant cost savings for both defendants and tax payers. “The report said that if the program were instituted statewide, it would free up about 4,500 hours of court time annually, which would mean 54,000 fewer appearances for these low-level offenders,” Sandak says. “The report projected that the program would save the state over $9,000,000 in its first year alone.” Currently, the chief state’s attorney is requesting that the legislature take the program statewide to realize these savings which, as Sandak notes, should not be expensive or prohibitively difficult to accomplish because it’s primarily just a refocused way of utilizing existing personnel and resources.
With impact of this magnitude, you might expect that Sandak would want to stay laser-focused on this program, which he believes has the potential to scale up nationally. However, although he remains committed to the program, he’s convinced that this handoff from private philanthropy to public government is key to sustainable change. “I believe that private philanthropy dollars need to be used to take risks and explore innovative ways to address tough issues,” Sandak explains. “It’s very hard to use public dollars to spearhead new and innovative approaches. By the same token, private philanthropists are often reluctant to provide long-term funding. Support for ongoing, proven, public projects should be the role of public dollars. In the most productive private-public partnerships, private money is used to test out and come up with innovative approaches to solving tough issues, and then successful projects are handed off to government entities to implement and scale up. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Sandak notes that the Singer Foundation isn’t solely focused on restorative justice: “We have other areas of interest. For example, in the education space, we are digging pretty deeply to try to understand the issues relating to post-secondary school persistence issues for low-income and minority students. Nationally and in Connecticut, we’re making some progress in closing the achievement gap and increasing graduation rates for these students. However, when it comes to post- high school education, these kids are falling off a cliff!”
To understand the root causes, Sandak is immersing himself in the topic. “I’m doing a lot of reading. I’m talking to professionals who are interested and committed to this issue,” he says. “That’s what’s most satisfying to me personally. Digging deeply, understanding the nature of the problem, and then providing funding to search for a solution. It’s so much more than just writing a check!”
“More than writing a check,” in fact, is something of an understatement. Sandak has become so involved in his philanthropy that it has become another vocation. “For me personally, it’s a privilege to be in the philanthropic space,” Sandak says. “I’ve had a successful legal career, and this is kind of like the next chapter. I’m spending more and more of my time on this, and I find it very rewarding.”