BRATTLEBORO—James Arana has a simple way to describe his client base: “People who are dancing with the law, and not by choice.”
As pretrial coordinator at Youth Services, Arana manages pretrial services, a voluntary program for people involved in the criminal court system.
The program recognizes that many people entering the criminal justice system have underlying factors that lead to the criminal misconduct.
It screens participants for substance-abuse or mental-health issues “to inform the criminal-justice system about whether alternative paths at rehabilitation may be more effective” than conventional approaches to punishing crime, said Youth Services’ Executive Director Russell Bradbury-Carlin.
Although Arana works for an agency whose name contains the word “youth,” he serves clients of all ages.
“I have clients between [the ages] of 17 and 68. The average age is 40,” he said.
Arana — who began working with the agency in February — meets with individuals who choose to participate, and conducts a risk assessment and needs screening. He shares the results with the prosecutor’s office and provides the individual with information about resources to help address areas of concern.
“The judge can use those results when determining bail and conditions of release, and the prosecutor can offer defendants the opportunity to participate in a Pre-charge Program that does not involve filing the case with the court,” Arana explained in a news release.
“Is putting them in front of court helpful? Can our services help them?” are questions prosecutors may ask when deciding on a referral, Arana told The Commons.
“I’ve been blessed to be there for each person in the process,” Arana said.
Some clients accept the help, while others aren’t interested.
“I tell them, ‘I’m still here down the road,’” he said.
Restorative justice has been part of Youth Services’ work since the 1970s, when the organization established juvenile court diversion. In the 1980s and 1990s, adult court diversion began serving people 18 and older, as well as younger people charged as adults in criminal court who were referred by the state’s attorney.
Nearly three years ago, Youth Services created pretrial services, which started as a contract between Youth Services and the state Department of Corrections, according to Rosie Nevins-Alderfer, director of restorative-justice programs.
Last year, the state attorney general’s office became the contract manager for all diversion services. But when Arana started work in February, “the program really changed,” she said.
And in July, new state legislation took effect.
Now, “all offenses that would be expunged are basically automatically referred to diversion unless the prosecutor states on the record why diversion referral is not in the interest of justice,” Nevins-Alderfer said.
The exceptions, she noted, are “murder, rape, robbery, domestic offenses, or predicate offenses — charges that go up with every occurrence, like driving under the influence.”
Arana’s case-management tasks may include driving clients to court appearances or accompanying them to visits with mental-health or addiction services.
But, here’s what Arana doesn’t do: “I don’t look at their [case] folder” before their initial meeting.
“First, I listen to the plight of the person,” Arana said.
Some of the questions Arana asks a new client: Tell me a little about yourself. What are your skills and interests?
“I ask them poignant questions that aren’t even meant to be answered, such as, ‘What are you going to do differently?’” Arana added.
“For me, that’s the most important criterion: to meet them as a human, without judgment, to see them for who they are,” he said. “They’re coming in with experience with a wide variety of institutions which are cold and impersonal. I’m really just interested to know who they are as a human.”
Sometimes Arana’s clients have never thought about the possibilities available to them, such as treatment for drug and alcohol issues.
“I ask them, ‘Who will benefit from accessing treatment?’ and they realize it’s them, because they will no longer be harassed [by court officials], and they can keep their freedom.”
Common denominator: poverty
When asked if there is a common denominator among his clients, Arana immediately answered, “Poverty.”
“Our society has a profound impact on the individual: Children growing up in poverty, with parents who cannot provide for them; inadequate school systems; lack of strong extended-family support,” Arana said.
“This American system of a nuclear family, and where you have to ‘do it yourself,’ when there’s only two parents, it’s a recipe for disaster,” Arana said, especially “without a good school system, no support, no money, no access to transportation. You can’t do it all alone.”
“Some of my clients are dealing with homelessness and addiction, which is extra challenging,” Arana said.
“When a state cannot provide shelter for citizens and then we blame those citizens for, say, committing the crime of having no housing, well, I’d go a little crazy,” he added. “But, that’s part of the capitalist system: convincing them it’s their fault.”
What makes matters worse, Arana said, is that within “the trauma that comes from that, you’re not supposed to express pain.”
Arana estimates that 85 to 90 percent of his cases are white males.
“The traumas I’m hearing — which happened when they were young boys — they can’t express what they’re dealing with, and that pressure-cooker has to come out one way or another,” he said.
“When people are empathized with, and heard, there’s a certain kind of outlook that they get. There’s a recognition in them, of ‘It’s not just my fault, so now what am I going to do differently?’” said Arana.
“It’s like people are almost looking for a certain permission to change, they’re waiting for that support,” he said. “I feel optimistic. What we do is, we open up their blinders, which gives them permission to reach out and access services, and to envision other ways of being in society and in their families,” Arana said.
“It’s about building community. When they’re doing well, they’ll support others,” Arana pointed out.
Training as a teenager
Arana’s training in restorative-justice practices began early.
“I’ve been doing this kind of work — community building — since I was 14 years old, in the South Bronx in the 1970s,” Arana said.
He described that setting as “a community with the highest rates of poverty, crime, and a lack of education and employment, and yet, in that community there was love and affection to develop people like me into strong caretakers.”
As a youth, Arana began working with Dr. Edward P. Eismann, a social worker who founded Unitas, a community mental health center, after walking around and meeting youth in the Hunts Point and Longwood areas.
“He had 35 to 40 teens, aged 14 to 20, and he taught us everything it took him years to learn as a psychologist. He wanted us to put [the lessons] into action,” Arana said.
Eismann helped the older youth set up symbolic families where they would “adopt” the younger children. He taught them mediation, conflict resolution, how to break masculine and feminine norms, and the art of “being human.”
“We were creating our own way and empowering ourselves,” Arana said.
From there, Arana continued his work, which sometimes took him around the world. He is senior consultant and trainer for MERGE for Equality, Inc., which trains men and women to work as allies in preventing gender-based violence and family violence.
Arana is also director of youth programing and training for the Performance Project and First Generation, its youth program, in Springfield, Mass.
He was co-founder of Men’s Resources International, also in Springfield, and worked as a prevention specialist and program director for Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass.
“My passion is working with people around the world on positive masculinity and violence prevention,” Arana said. “Everything I do is through this lens.”
New law increases caseload
Nevins-Alderfer wants the public to know “restorative interventions are more cost-effective” than putting people in jail, and she describes such programs as “evidence-based practice.”
“It costs way less money than paying lawyers to take a trial through court. Restorative justice improves health outcomes and expands access to services,” she said. “Research indicates there’s a dramatic decrease in recidivism — and that translates to safer communities.”
As a result of the new state legislation — Act 195, passed during the previous legislative session — “We’ve seen a significant increase in cases,” Nevins-Alderfer said.
In early September, the Restorative Justice Programs had 70 open cases; in the prior spring there were 40. “Last week alone [the State’s Attorney] sent us 10 referrals,” she said.
“Right now, James has 30 cases and he’s part-time at 20-30 hours per week,” she said.
Nevins-Alderfer isn’t complaining.
“State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver is willing to send cases to James. I’m so impressed and grateful — they send us every case they can,” Nevins-Alderfer said. “They do care, and they also see you can’t arrest your way out of problems. It’s not effective. It’s not helpful.”
But, Nevins-Alderfer pointed out, “We need money. We put in a request to the Legislature for additional money for Pretrial Services to make the position full-time. We won’t know until January when the Fiscal Year 2018 budget is released.”
“Diversion was supposed to get a budget cut. But, it’s a 20-year proven program. Pretrial Services is new, so it’s more vulnerable,” said Nevins-Alderfer, adding that “nobody knows if funding will continue” at its current level.
Arana isn’t complaining, either.
“What I love about my job is, I don’t have to be in the office all the time. I go into the community and I meet people where they are. I love and appreciate that,” said Arana. “And that’s what we did in the South Bronx — we went out into the streets. It’s tested and proven.”
“There’s not one day I feel overwhelmed with the work I do. It’s about making connections,” he said.
But, Arana said, “I want to put myself out of business. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need this kind of service?”