Correction: In the print version of this article and an earlier online version, it was erroneously implied that Suzanne Burnham had three felony DWIs on her record. Burnham has three DWIs, but only one of them was a felony.
Earlier this month, Samantha Gentz graduated from College Initiative Upstate, propelling her to a position to follow her career and personal goals that looked entirely out of reach just three years prior. She has a chance now to get a job that she loves in a field she enjoys, and is optimistic that even though she’s spent several years away from school she’ll be able to adapt successfully.
A few years ago, Gentz was deeply addicted to intravenous heroin, had lost all custody of her children, and was racking up several arrests for anything from neglect to burglary. She had finally entered drug court after picking up her first felony, and admitted that she was beginning to resign herself to the thought that she would never get sober from heroin, and that her life would now be decided by her ability to avoid overdoses for as long as she could. That is, until, the drugs and crime began to catch up to her in a more personal way.
“The overdoses started hitting closer to home,” Gentz said, noting her boyfriend and a best friend both died from heroin overdoses in succession. “That turned into my turning point, but at that point I was so far into it that when I lost custody of my kids, it really opened up my eyes to say ‘Hey, this is not my life. I can’t go on without my kids.’ They were all I had.”
The loss of her children sparked something in Gentz that never stopped. A month later she was in rehab. Now, Gentz said she doesn’t feel the need to shoot up anymore. She’s regained custody of her children, completed rehab and has been clean from drugs for over two years now. She can’t make any promises about her future behavior, but she feels like as long as she has her main motivation, her children, back in her life, she has a constant reason to wake up in the morning and avoid falling back into her old habits.
“I really enjoy helping other people and giving back to people that are in my similar situation,” Gentz said. “So in order to do that, I have to go get a degree in something that I love to do, and it’s also to show my kids that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can go back to school and become something and pursue your goals instead of just waiting.”
Gentz credits College Initiative Upstate with giving her the confidence to go back to school after she was recruited by Suzanne Burnham, the program’s academic counselor, to join. She felt like she was destined to fail after eight years away from taking classes and studying, but with the intensive six week course designed to reintroduce people to life in education, she feels like she’ll be ready when the semester starts in a few weeks. She’ll be pursuing her first year of school at Tompkins Cortland Community College for chemical dependency and look to obtain her EMT certification, then she’ll transfer to Broome Community College to be trained as a paramedic.
“Besides everything that I’ve been through for the last two or three years, it’s a big step for me to do this,” Gentz said. “I’m very, very blessed to have Suzanne [Burnham] and Benay [Rubenstein] to give me this opportunity.”
College Initiative Upstate is just one of the dozens of alternatives-to-incarceration (ATIs) programs that exist either in Tompkins County or as an extension of the county government itself. They take on a wide variety of forms, from something as commonplace as parole programs to as unique as the CIU program, developed by Rubenstein in New York City (as College Initiative Downstate) before she moved to Tompkins County and started the Upstate program here under the umbrella of Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) of Tompkins County. The program, one of the youngest ATIs in Tompkins County, provides intensive pre-college courses for people looking to enroll in higher education who have had some contact with the criminal justice system, whether it be actual incarceration or something lesser. It monitors them as they go through school as well, and can provide assistance with financial aid applications and the like.
Burnham, who runs the program along with Rubenstein, knows well how long a conviction can follow someone, hampering their progress even after they’ve been able to overcome their addiction. Though she’s been sober since 2012, when she received her third DWI conviction, she’s been told by New York State that she will not be issued a driver’s license until 2021. Applying for college was difficult and invasive as well, as Burnham had to submit to extra application measures each time she checked the box noting her felonies.
Helping other people achieve what Burnham has achieved is what drives her now. It even motivated her to go back to school for a graduate degree, for which she’s starting classes in Binghamton in the coming months.
“It’s an extension of who I am now,” Burnham said of passing on the skills and lessons she has learned that have helped her navigate not only sobriety but the other necessary hoops to get her life back on track. “I’m not just talking the talk now, I’m walking the walk.”
Even if she succeeds personally, she said, if she fails to pass that knowledge on so others can use it she feels as if she has wasted her new opportunity. A big part of that has been getting involved with CIU, and will likely continue if she is able to complete her graduate program. People like Burnham, who harbor a desire to guide after overcoming their own mistakes, make up a significant amount of the ATI program community, and that community makes up a significant amount of the movement in Tompkins County to, in essence, place rehabilitation ahead of punishment as a reaction to crime or addiction.
The county’s efforts and investment in ATIs are substantial, and they are designed primarily to help reduce the societal harm caused by the criminal justice system. But it’s not charity. There is, of course, also a practical, economically beneficial side for Tompkins County as well. Steering people away from incarceration lessens the burden on the local jail, which in turn creates lower costs for the county to operate the jail.
Tompkins County legislator Rich John, current chair of the Public Safety Committee who also served as the leader of the Jail Study Committee, said a renewed interest in pushing ATIs came from a recent study conducted by the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) on lowering the Tompkins County Jail population. While it is low in Tompkins County compared to other counties in the state and the country in general, CGR said steps by the county should shrink the population load further.
“Certainly, when we were going through 2017 and the Jail Study Committee was looking at this, I did have the concern that we had already picked all the low-hanging fruit and whether additional steps really could get us further wasn’t clear to me,” John said. “But the CGR study pretty clearly said we could, and so in our budget last year, we bet pretty heavily on alternatives to incarceration.”
That bet amounted to a new influx of $800,000, money that was dedicated to hiring a new probation officer and two new mental health workers (one who performs mental health screenings during the prison admission process, and one who works as a re-entry coordinator for someone getting out of incarceration), expanding electronic monitoring, bringing on a new Criminal Justice Coordinator, among others. John also said the county legislature is going to be pushing hard during New York State’s budget process for funding for another Tompkins County court judge to expedite the waiting process for trial and hearings.
Of course, John said, there are some people who belong in jail based on their conduct or crime. But for the majority of prisoners held here, he said, it can be argued whether or not prison is really the best place for them to be, both for them and for society.
“The results are pretty preliminary at this point, but the results are pretty good,” John said. “In terms of the metrics you can follow, it’s the number of people receptive to getting [involved in] programming, and we’re tracking that on a quarterly basis. Those numbers are really positive, where we had nothing before we now have more than half of the people are accepting programmatic support, and attending.”
While those people might not necessarily be completing the programs, John said the focus for now is gauging how much interest and enthusiasm can be stirred for these programs among eligible participants and the re-entry coordinator’s success in getting people in the door. As success theoretically increases over the next few years, he said there could be wide-reaching implications for the county as a result, paramount of which will be moral and financial.
“The amount of money you save is remarkable, and the difference you make in their lives,” John said. “From the standpoint of having someone sit in the jail for a sentence or doing something this way where they go to college and move on, that’s a real win. At any rate, we’ve tried to do all these things because we realized this is what the public was clearly saying to us that they wanted, but also we thought this was the way to address the jail population issue.”
John said the county was particularly interested in minimizing the number of board-outs at the jail, which involves sending inmates to incarceration facilities in other counties due to overcrowding. This usually involves considerable cost to the initial county, as well as putting undue strain on the inmate by separating them from their families, lawyers and services offered at the Tompkins County jail.
There doesn’t seem to be a feasible, safe way to simply eliminate the jail, though that is what a fair amount of people around Tompkins County would like to see. Despite their vocal objections at virtually any county meeting discussing the future of the jail, John said he thinks the most beneficial path forward is to invest in ATI programs, anything from CIU to parole reform to any litany of other options the county is offering now or will be in the future, that can either divert people from incarceration entirely or help them healthily readjust and thrive once they are released.
“To the extent that you can break a cycle and you don’t have somebody continually involved in the criminal justice system, everybody is better off,” John said. “You can argue about it politically as long as you want, but I don’t think it’s a political issue. You don’t want people committing crimes. You won’t solve it for everybody, there are people who want to commit crimes [...] But for the people who are reachable, it’s way better.”
Everybody involved in ATIs knows, even in the overall progressive and supportive community of Tompkins County, that there will always be those who think the addicts and inmates have wasted their opportunities, that as soon as they picked up a needle or robbed a store, they sacrificed any chance at redemption, and certainly gave up any claim to taxpayer-funded help. But Gentz said herself and people like her are aware and accepting of her mistakes. But instead of leaving those people behind, programs like CIU that open more doors and facilitate education and occupational training, create a far better chance of them actually being able to contribute to society or their community in the future.
“People do make mistakes, not everybody is perfect and as for myself, I made those choices to pick up and lose everything that I’ve ever worked for,” Gentz said. “I was one of those hard-working moms that worked 60-80 hours a week and I just threw it all away. But there’s hope for people like me, that they can get back on their feet if they have the appropriate knowledge and help to get to where they want to be.”