As New York City’s probation commissioner since 2010, Vincent Schiraldi, 53, heads a department that is charged with giving New Yorkers who get into trouble with the law an opportunity to leave the criminal justice system and to reconnect with their families and communities. He is, in the words of a December 2009 Washington Post editorial, “inherently a reformer.”

Vincent Schiraldi

A native New Yorker with a master’s degree in social work, Schiraldi has written numerous articles advocating alternatives to incarceration. He established and ran think tanks and worked closely with organizations dedicated to reducing society’s reliance on imprisonment as a solution to social problems.

Switching from the non-profit sector to government, he headed Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services for five years. The Post says he was “both hailed and vilified” as he worked to put his ideas into practice. His admirers credit him with transforming the way the district dealt with troubled youths, and the agency was recognized by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government for being among the 50 most innovative programs in the country. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired him to continue the city’s efforts to advance public safety as it reduces recidivism.

As of May 22, the Probation Department was supervising 24,317 adults and 1,970 juveniles referred to it by the courts. It handled a total of 30,724 adult and 4,951 juvenile cases, and conducted 25,418 presentence investigations last year. As the head of an agency with an $82.2 million budget and 1,068 employees, Schiraldi makes $192,198 a year.

Read the Probation Department’s strategic plan.

Q: You have been described as a national leader in rehabilitating criminal offenders. What attracted you to the field?

A: Growing up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, during the ’70s, a lot of my friends got into trouble with the law. Sometimes they’d take a trip to Spofford or, more rarely, Rikers. When they came back, two things were almost always true. They were almost always worse—more violent, more unruly, etc. And the second true thing is that we always looked up to them more. We didn’t have this phrase for it back then, but they had more ‘street cred.’ Even as a kid, I knew this was wrong.

When I was in college, I had a chance to do an internship at the New York State Division for Youth (the predecessor to the Office of Children and Family Services) in Binghamton, working with kids who had run afoul of the law. I loved that job, which evolved from being an intern assisting caseworkers, to a paying job as a weekend houseparent, to a full-time houseparent where I lived with seven delinquent boys, to recreation coordinator. The challenge of helping kids turn their lives around bit me like a bug and I never looked back.

Q: Before heading a newly created juvenile justice agency in Washington, D.C., you established and ran private non-profit think tanks dedicated to reducing society’s reliance on incarceration as a solution to social problems. Did you see the D.C. job as an opportunity to put your ideas into practice? What did you learn from the experience?

A: Yes, I absolutely saw the D.C. job, not to mention my current job with the Department of Probation, as a chance to practice what I had been loudly preaching as an advocate. I highly recommend this experience to more advocates. I believe the best way to improve America’s justice system is for some of those on the outside to ‘come inside’ and work with the government agencies charged with the duty of administering justice. This doesn’t require abdicating their advocacy role; instead, they can become ‘advocates from within.’ That’s the role I’ve strived to play in both D.C. and New York, and I believe that I’ve helped move the ball down field. At the same time, it has challenged some of my stereotypes about government workers, who face enormous challenges as they do their jobs and who often have the best interest of the clients and the city at heart and are looking for ways to put their knowledge and experience to work for the betterment of both.

Q: Why did you move from D.C. to New York?

A: The opportunity to work for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team was the top reason I came to New York City. I loved working for Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty, and am proud of what my team and I achieved, but the Bloomberg administration is setting the national standard for reforming how municipal government works and I wanted to be a part of that. The fact that New York is where I grew up was a very nice added bonus.

Q: What is the principal function of the Probation Department?

A: To advance public safety and build stronger and safer communities by helping people turn their lives around while remaining in their home communities. Also, to provide the courts with high-quality reports that help them make educated decisions at sentencing.

Q: What changes have you made in the agency since you arrived?

A: We’ve done a lot since I got here more than two years ago, but it boils down to three major changes: 1) helping people by providing them with greater access to programs targeted to their needs and better probation practices; 2) reducing the harm and obstacles that the justice system can impose on people on probation; and 3) returning probation to its roots in the community. To put it simply, the department is focused on doing more good, doing less harm, and doing it in the community.

For example, we’ve cut by nearly one third the number of people who return to jail for technical (non-criminal) probation violations, and increased five-fold the number of probation clients who ‘earn’ their way off of probation early by complying and staying crime-free. This means we’re keeping some of our more challenging clients and asking the courts to discharge our better-performing clients early, all while rearrest rates for our clients one year after sentencing is down. In other words, we’re doing less harm while addressing public safety.

As far as ‘doing more good’ is concerned, with the help of the U.S. Justice Department we’re in the process of training our entire staff on evidence-based practices, which are approaches to probation that research has shown improve outcomes and reduce rearrests.

Finally, with respect to ‘doing it in the community,’ we’ve launched the Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), a signature Justice Reinvestment initiative. Through the NeON, we are investing resources in the neighborhoods where our clients live—places which, in many cases, they have harmed through their actions—and linking clients to local networks of opportunity, especially around education, work and civic engagement. These efforts to engage communities will define the future of the Probation Department and, if we succeed, possibly the future of probation beyond New York.

In November, as part of his Young Men’s Initiative, Mayor Bloomberg traveled to Brownsville, Brooklyn, to cut the ribbon on the first NeON. There, probation staff are working with probation clients who live in Brownsville and local organizations. In addition, we’re establishing NeONs in South Jamaica (Queens), Harlem, East New York (Brooklyn), Bedford Stuyvesant (Brooklyn), the South Bronx and on Staten Island. It’s important to understand that the NeON initiative is about much more than simply moving probation staff from downtown court buildings to smaller, community-based offices. We’re also tapping into the community’s existing support network, which includes businesses, community-based organizations, religious institutions, and civic associations. Our staff and clients will also be participating in various community benefit projects.

Finally, the Probation Department played a key role in the successful push to pass ‘Close to Home’ legislation, which starting this fall will remove New York City young people from expensive and ineffective state facilities and instead send them to state-of-the-art facilities operated by the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) or place them on probation in community programs administered by Probation and ACS. This is a huge victory for New York and the larger juvenile justice reform movement, and we’re very proud of the role we’ve played in it.

Q: What is the key to insuring that people who are sentenced to probation do not get into trouble again?

A: There are actually three keys: individualization, incorporating best practices, and engaging with the community. When we get new clients, the first thing we need to do is conduct an assessment that gauges their risk of committing another crime and assesses what they need to do to get their lives back on track. These assessments inform the supervision plan and are a means of gauging progress. Once the work of supervision begins, we need to be sure our work is grounded in best practices, not just gut feelings. Finally, we need to involve people in their communities, and communities in their people. Our clients must understand that they’ve harmed their communities and have a moral obligation to make things right. And communities need to share with the Probation Department the responsibility for connecting residents to opportunities and services, with the understanding that real, effective public safety depends on second chances.

All of this is much harder than simply urine-testing people once a week and sending them on their way. I’m happy to report that the department has responded enthusiastically to these reforms, and I truly believe we’re up to the task of becoming one of the best probation departments in the country.

Q: You and your boss, Mayor Bloomberg, stress the importance of data in evaluating government performance. What do the numbers tell you about how good a job the Probation Department is doing? Are there areas in which improvement is needed?

A: When you compare 2011 to 2009, we cut the rate of unnecessary probation violations by 37 percent for adults and 26 percent for juveniles, proof that we are going the extra mile to try to help our clients succeed, not just sending them to jail at the first sign of trouble. For clients who are doing well, we’ve increased requests for early discharge five-fold—in other words, we have carrots to go along with our sticks. We are diverting 36 percent of youth who are appearing before us after an initial and minor brush with the law, allowing them to repay their debt to society without being drawn deeper into a system that can do more harm than good. All of this is occurring as we keep a sharp eye on criminal and delinquent behavior. State data shows that over the past decade, the felony rearrest rate for our clients has declined by 27 percent and that only 3 percent of Probation clients who have received early discharges from the courts have been rearrested within a year. An impressive 90 percent of the kids we divert from the system succeed in their two-month adjustment period, during which Probation supervises them, and of those who fail most do so because of a technical violation, not a rearrest.

As you’ve hopefully picked up, we have undertaken an ambitious agenda that will result in significant changes throughout the agency. In terms of areas of improvement, we are always working to present our reforms in a way that staff, clients and their families, community members and key system stakeholders such as the courts, prosecution and defense lawyers, police officers, our city government colleagues, advocates, and community-based providers can understand and get behind. It all comes down to pacing—moving fast, but not too fast—good communication and lots and lots of education and preparation.

The central question is this: What’s really going to improve public safety? Some people feel the only remedy is to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ but to quote the title of a book written by John Jay President Jeremy Travis, ‘But they all come home.’

Q: You were trained as a social worker but work closely with an institution dominated by lawyers: the courts. Are the city’s judges receptive to your approach to criminal justice?

A: The city’s judges have been great. On the Family Court side, Administrative Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson and Bronx Administrative Judge Monica Drinane are part of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee that I co-chair with ACS Commissioner Ron Richter, and they have been very generous in their advice and counsel about how to improve our work with juveniles.

On the adult side, we’ve met with the city’s Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Fern Fisher; Barry Kamins, administrative judge of the Criminal Court of New York City; and the administrative judges for every borough to discuss our work and receive their feedback.

They’ve been forthcoming and supportive of the changes we’re trying to make. I think both the Family and Criminal courts recognize what a tremendous resource the Probation Department can be in providing judges with better options when they’re rendering important sentencing decisions on individual defendants. They have a real interest in helping us improving that continuum of options.

Q: What is Probation’s role in implementing the Close to Home juvenile justice initiative?

A: To oversimplify, we’re in charge of the community-based part of the initiative. We aren’t going it alone—ACS runs the very successful Juvenile Justice Initiative, the city’s largest alternative to placement—but Probation supervises every youth sentenced to probation and to alternatives to placement, and we will play the key role in expanding the city’s continuum of community programs. Specifically, we are launching a day treatment initiative, an in-home family services program called AIM (Advocate, Intervene, Mentor), and a wrap-around services program based on restorative justice principles called ECHOES (Every Child Has an Opportunity to Excel and Succeed).

Creating a strong continuum of alternative-to-placement programs is so important for two primary reasons: Without it, youth who could be worked with in the community are sometimes placed, and when lower-risk youth who don’t need to be placed are confined with higher-risk youth, they get worse. We are adopting a new risk and needs assessment instrument to help us objectively and professionally measure risk and identify needs that, when met through an individualized plan, will maximize the opportunities for guiding young people away from crime and into productive activities. We are also now making better decisions based on our improved risks and needs information, thanks to a new state-of-the-art structured decision making model that carefully weighs a youth’s risk level with offense severity to guide the probation officer’s recommendations. The model is the result of 1 1/2 years of work with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, NYPD, ACS, the Department of Education community members and other stakeholders. Thanks to this tool, we expect to divert some young people away from placement and into the kinds of programs that will assure their short- and long-term success.

Q: While the treatment of juveniles has received much of the recent attention, the great majority of people your agency supervises are adults. Is the agency’s approach to adults different than the one for juveniles?

A: Taking a national view, it is my sense that the adult and juvenile systems treat their clients differently in ways that are sometimes not helpful. For example, one-third of the people on probation in New York City—about 8,800 people—are between ages 16-24, while there are about 2,000 ‘juveniles’ on probation for acts they committed before the age of 16 that would be considered crimes if they were adults.

Historically, young people on probation from Family Court have a relatively rich array of age-appropriate services available to them, while those who appeared before Criminal Courts would be served by adult probation offices and be treated in much the same way as clients who are much older. Thanks to the mayor’s Young Men’s Initiative, Probation now offers a much richer array of tutoring, educational, vocational and mentoring programs targeted specifically at young adult clients between 16 and 24. We have also established specialized adolescent caseloads, staffed by probation officers who know how to provide age-appropriate supervision, counseling and services. We are also working with all of our adult clients to create ‘individualized achievement plans,’ which provide a road map for both the client and the probation officer in their shared quest to get the client the help he or she needs to avoid crime and become a productive member of his or her community.