As the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) enters its third decade, the core values that form our mission seem more relevant than ever. CCA's approach is rooted in an understanding that solutions to crime rest within communities. Our work includes advocacy for alternative sentences as well as providing drug treatment, health, and HIV-related services. With community partners, CCA supports young people by helping adolescents succeed in school and by helping young adults prepare to join the workforce, gain employment and reunite with their families.
Each day, our clients amaze us with their strength — their ability to persevere in the face of social, economic and personal challenges. Their progress demonstrates how gender-responsive approaches are important for women and girls in the criminal justice system, and how youth development methods unleash the incredible energy and talents of young people. We learn from our clients — their issues become the impetus for the ways that CCA has and will continue to grow over the years.
CCA began in 1981 as the first not-for-profit alternative-to-incarceration agency in New York State. Since then, sentencing alternatives have expanded over the past three decades, along with the use of incarceration. When CCA first opened our doors, there were about 20,000 people in New York State prisons, and 330,000 prisoners in all state and federal prisons. Changes in state and federal laws, such as New York's Rockefeller drug laws and the federal sentencing guidelines have forced more and more people into prison. Now, even with the decline in crime, there are more than 2 million people in prison and jail in the United States, almost 70,000 in New York prisons alone. The tragic disparity in the numbers of incarcerated African American and Latino men, the appalling growth in the number of incarcerated women, the treatment of juveniles as adults, the incidence of HIV and AIDS in the prison population and the reintroduction of the death penalty have formed a dismal backdrop to our work.
In the face of these challenges, CCA has consistently and successfully stood against the over reliance on incarceration. We pioneered and continue to work in the courts for an individualized approach to sentencing through our Client Specific Planning services. Our Youth Advocacy Projects demonstrate the wisdom of treating children in the criminal justice system as juveniles even in the face of laws that would assign them to the adult criminal justice system. CCA's death penalty mitigation services have uncovered the cruel circumstances and untold life stories of capital defendants that have resulted in over 90% of our capital punishment eligible clients avoiding the imposition of the death penalty.
CCA's work takes us into the neglected places of America — its ghettos and its dungeons - the places that many prefer to keep secret. In response, CCA has taken up advocacy-oriented research to challenge social policies that have led the U.S. to the dubious distinction of the nation with the most citizens behind bars. At CCA we believe that we have a responsibility to speak out for reform of not only our criminal justice system, but the broader policies that have made the criminal justice system the centerpiece of domestic governance.
Community alternatives, once relegated to the sidelines, are becoming central to a sensible and humane justice system. In 1981, CCA was a tiny organization and one of the few voices calling for alternatives to incarceration. Today, CCA with more than 100 talented, dedicated staff, serves thousands of people a year — in three offices, in communities, schools, jails and prisons across the state. Our partners are diverse and range from grassroots community groups looking for effective ways to prevent crime without sending more of their children to jail and prison, to forward-thinking judges, parole officials, police and others inside and outside the criminal justice system who also recognize the central role that community alternatives play in public safety.
CCA began with a commitment to demonstrate alternative models of justice. Over the next several years, we will continue this work, as advocates and practitioners. Our future plans include deepening our work with juveniles by demonstrating ways to stem the "school to prison pipeline", and by partnering with community groups to expanding alternatives to incarceration. We are no longer an isolated island but a leader with our colleagues, allies and community partners in a movement for a rationale, humane criminal justice system.
Marsha Weissman, Ph.D., Executive Director