Alternatives to Incarceration: Saving Money and Changing Lives

Alternatives to incarceration and re-entry programs often do not receive the attention or spotlight that other social service programs do.  However, alternatives to incarceration provide many benefits not only for the government, but for the participants and their community as well.  These programs help New York lower costs while providing its participants with life skills to move away from further encounters with the criminal justice system. 

The criminal justice system has become a heavy financial burden in the past decade.  The annual cost per person to place an individual in jail is $73,000 and in a state prison is $38,000.  However, the average per client cost of most alternatives to incarceration programs is $11,000 – representing an immense savings over the cost of incarceration. Each year, ATI/Reentry programs save City and State correctional systems more than $100 million. The juvenile criminal justice system is even more expensive due to a wider range of needs. New York State spends nearly $120,000 a year to incarcerate a single juvenile offender,  while ATI programs can cost between $5,000–$28,000*. This clearly saves the government a vast amount of money. These statistics remind us of the contributions that non-profits make to the community, as well as the amount of money they save the government.

Alternatives to incarceration don’t just provide fiscal benefits, but they improve the overall well-being of communities.  ATIs allow a judge to sentence someone to a program where they receive treatment, education, and employment training in the community, all the while remaining under strict supervision. Studies by the nation’s leading criminal justice researchers have shown that ATIs reduce jail time, and successfully treat people in the community without compromising public safety**. Alternatives to incarceration are meant to ‘stop the cycle’ that the criminal justice system has only exacerbated.  They work to build a better, safer community; those who participate in these programs complete over 100,000 hours of community service over the course of one year**.  Also, they help to build the local economy in neighborhoods ridden with crime.  If the convicted are given the opportunity to work in their hometown, they are positively contributing to the community and not engaging in previous behavior. By receiving job training, drug treatment, and overall counseling those convicted have the chance to break the cycle. 

Unfortunately, due to tough economic times in our nation, cuts have been made at the federal, State, and City levels, downsizing the entire alternatives to incarceration program.  In 2010, the Governor’s budget proposed a cut of more than 10 percent, which would reduce ATI funding by $1.6 million, and neither the Assembly nor Senate budget resolutions restored any funding.  The field also lost critical federal and State funding over the last two years.  Even worse, we are hearing that approximately $3 million in Legislative additions – which have been the backbone of much of the ATI system for many years – are in real jeopardy.  All told, ATI programs stand to lose as much as $4.5 million, a blow that could decimate the system***.

With these alarming statistics, it is important as ever to support ATI programs and continue State funding.  Not only are these programs cheaper than incarceration, but they enrich the lives of each participant.  In order to build better communities, we need to re-evaluate the successfulness of the justice system and work to break the cycle of repeated criminal offenses.  Also, with the current state of the economy, we need to remember that ATI programs save money now and in the long term by diverting people from prison, and gives individuals the tools to stay out of prison. 

Contributed by Nicole Brown of the Human Services Council.

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To find the final City budget over the years you can access it at:


About Human Services Council

The Human Services Council strengthens New York's nonprofit human services sector, ensuring all New Yorkers across diverse neighborhoods, cultures, and generations reach their full potential.
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