“Why me?” Schiraldi asked the recruiter.
The recruiter was a white woman from Manhattan’s Upper West Side who had two adopted Black sons. It was the peak of New York’s stop-and-frisk program, and they were teenagers. She told Schiraldi she wanted to find a probation commissioner she would want if her kids ever got in trouble.
Bloomberg was at Schiraldi’s final job interview. He asked Schiraldi what he thought about probation.
“I said I think it’s a poor service given to poor people and most politicians don’t really give a shit about it and don’t know what it does,” Schiraldi recalled. “I said, let’s imagine probation didn’t exist and I gave you $80 million and 27,000 troubled and troubling souls and said do whatever you want with this money to make this better, to rehabilitate these folks and have them not commit new crimes. I’m pretty sure what you wouldn’t do is go out and hire a thousand civil service-protected, disinterested bureaucrats and have them tell people under supervision to piss in a cup once a week and tell them to go forth and sin no more.”
Schiraldi got the job and immediately began shrinking the system he had been brought in to run.
There was a provision in the law that allowed people to get off probation early, but it was rarely used; he started using it. He also cut in half the rate at which the department filed violation proceedings against people for breaking probation rules. He downsized the central probation offices in the five boroughs where thousands of people reported every month, and opened up 14 small offices around the city. He outfitted the community offices with comfortable furniture, flat-screen TVs, and banks of computers for job hunting.
Now, when people go to check in with their probation officers, Schiraldi said, it’s in their neighborhood and “like walking into a nice nonprofit organization.” The probation office in the South Bronx started a poet-in-residence program. It publishes a book of poetry every quarter with poems by staff and people on probation. That office also started a food bank, which has been a critical help to the community during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During Schiraldi’s tenure, from 2010 to 2014, the number of people on probation in New York City fell from its peak of 68,000 in 1996 to just under 21,400 in 2014. He also helped reduce the population by successfully sponsoring legislation to shorten probation terms and by increasing requests for early discharge from probation nearly sixfold. Schiraldi had no influence over detention or rearrest for parole violations, because that program is run by the state.
It wasn’t the first time Schiraldi had been asked to run a part of the criminal legal system of which he’d long disapproved. When he took the New York position, he had just finished a five-year stint as the director of Washington, DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. When Schiraldi took the helm – the 20th commissioner in 19 years – the institution was under a consent decree due to a history of allegations of abuse of children under its care, with a motion pending to place it into court receivership.
“The place was falling apart,” Schiraldi said. “Kids were taking off their shirts at night to stuff up the holes to stop rats and cockroaches from crawling up and biting them. It was broken at that elemental level.”
The facility was meant to house 200 kids, but more than 250 were living there, he said. To fix it, Schiraldi said, “I had to get the kids the hell out of there,” and “massively retrain the staff.”
Schiraldi set up meetings with community groups, family members, religious leaders, and multiple juvenile justice advocates, then built a system of services, supports, and opportunities for the kids so that when they returned home to live with their families, they had a community. He found therapists, dance teachers, Tai Chi instructors, and basketball coaches, and contracted with them.
“You had the therapist talking to the basketball coach, who is talking to the Tai Chi guy, who is talking to the guy who is helping little Johnny find a job and they are all one big team, and they are wrapping themselves around Johnny, and they are talking to Johnny’s parents, and now Johnny’s got a fighting chance,” Schiraldi said.
While he was moving money, services, and power into the kids’ neighborhoods, Schiraldi set about retraining the staff.
“We fought the fight one unit at a time,” Schiraldi said. “We would empty a living unit, 20 beds, send the staff down the road to the Ramada Inn, where all they did all day long for 30 days was get trained on how to treat kids decently and help turn their lives around.”
He also raised money to refurbish the main facility. With help from the kids, he laid down carpets, painted the walls, and brought in new furniture. The mayor swung by and helped. Poet and activist Maya Angelou came and spoke to kids and staff.
By the time Schiraldi stepped down there were fewer than 60 kids in the facility, dubbed “New Beginnings” after a naming contest judged by staff and kids, and Schiraldi had earned a reputation for treating kids with respect and dignity. Which is why that recruiter who was concerned about her two teenage boys chose him to fix New York City’s probation system.
Today, Schiraldi is a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and co-director, with sociologist Bruce Western, of the Columbia Justice Lab. He also continues to work with the Justice Policy Institute, the organization he founded, and formerly incarcerated and grassroots advocates around the country to reduce mass incarceration. “We are working together with impacted communities so that they can design what they need to create a thicker brand of public safety than we are now getting with cops, courts, and prisons,” he said.