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November 26, 2010 - 12:49am

The Genesee Justice Story

posted by Howard B. Owens in Genesee Justice.

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In the late 1970s, the big issue in Genesee County was, should taxpayers fund the construction of a new jail.

According to former Sheriff Doug Call, now a Stafford town justice, the family court judge of the time, Charles Graney, wrote a letter to the editor that said something like, "You can either be the last county in the nation to build a 90-bed maximum security jail, or you can be the first to try to keep people out of jail by holding offenders accountable."

Call, a former JAG in the Air Force, a former seminarian and an attorney working for the County Attorney's office, would tell anybody who would listen that the criminal justice system was broken. The county didn't need a new jail. It needed to try alternatives to incarceration to limit the jail population and save taxpayers money.

The sheriff at the time wasn't buying it.

"We've tried alternatives to incarceration and they don't work," the sheriff told the County Legislature.

Finally, Call said, people told him to put his money where his mouth is and run for sheriff.

So, he did.

Call ran as a Democrat, pushing the idea of restorative justice, a radical notion at the time, to Genesee County's mostly Republican voters.

It was simple, Call said. If you lock a guy up, he gets out in six months or a year and has learned nothing, paid back nothing and his crime victims are left without recourse.

He traveled around the county and told the story of a young lady who lost both of her legs in an accident and the 20-year-old young man who caused the accident was given only a year in jail. Neither of the young people were well covered by insurance. At the end of his year in jail, the young man moved to Rochester for a $10-an-hour job. The young woman had no legs, no help, no prospects and medical bills she couldn't afford to pay.

"The system broke down in her case," Call said he told his audiences. "We didn't make him constructively responsible for his crime. It's about time we try something different."

People's heads would start to nod, Call said. The idea of holding criminals accountable instead of just warehousing them with a cot and three squares went over well with Genesee County's conservative voters.

Call was a Democrat who never carried a gun, didn't wear a badge and had ideas about the justice system that weren't being tried anywhere else in the nation. But he beat an incumbent and became sheriff in 1980.

Up until then, the criminal justice system was one focused on apprehension of suspected criminals and punishment of wrongdoers. Convicts were rarely given a chance for substance-abuse treatment or work-release programs so they could stay employed. They did nothing to make amends to the community or the people they hurt.

Victims were forgotten, no statements in court, no restitution for losses -- they were lucky if they knew the outcome of the court case from reading it in the paper.

Around this time, some faith-based groups were talking about a different approach to criminal justice. They called it "restorative justice." It's based on the Biblical principle of seeking forgiveness and offering restitution when you've harmed another person.

In Genesee County, Call said, the time was fortuitous to look at a different way of doing justice. He was the new sheriff in town, but he wasn't the only member of the legal community feeling dissatisfied with the lock-'em-up-and-bail-'em-out tradition.

Call was among a group of reformers that included Graney, Director of Probation Tom Gillis and County Judge Glen Morton.

The four men began to work on a plan to develop a program that would require community service from non-violent offenders.

They learned of a charity group in New Jersey looking to fund a criminal justice reform program. They applied for money from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and received a grant.

The grant came with two stipulations -- that the program show results, and that it be supervised by a law enforcement agency.

Another young man with reform on his mind -- also a former seminary student -- worked in the probation department.

He thought offenders should do some good for the community rather than just be a drain on taxpayers while sitting in jail.

But when Call, Graney, Morter and Gillis came to Dennis Wittman and asked him to take charge of a new community service program, Wittman said no.

They asked again. Same answer.

Wittman was Bethany's town supervisor, and had been for about 10 years, and he felt like being supervisor was a second full-time job. The last thing he needed was to be the founding director of some program nobody knew would work or last.

Then one day in 1981, Wittman was summoned to his supervisor's office. There he found Gillis, his boss, Call, Graney and Morton.

"I could see they were going to pound away on me," Wittman recalled. "I said, 'OK, I'll give it a try.'"

The new division reported to the sheriff, but representatives of the foundation were concerned that if Wittman sat in an office with a lot of detectives, their attitudes about offenders -- that they were just no good and couldn't be helped -- would rub off on him.

Wittman was given a chair, a typewriter and a small desk in the county's law library. He had no staff and there was no precedent for what he was about to do. He had to create from scratch everything to do his job, including the forms judges would use to assign offenders to community service.

Soon, however, 120 community groups signed up to provide volunteer jobs to thoroughly screened, non-violent offenders.

Offenders put into the program were asked to paint churches, mop hospital floors, file library books and clean up parks, among a myriad of other tasks. 

By the time Wittman retired in 2006, 4,959 offenders had performed community service, doing 356,858 hours of unpaid work.

The alternative to jail had also saved county taxpayers more than $5.9 million because  those offenders weren't in jail for the 60,000 days they would have served otherwise.

But community service alone wasn't enough for Wittman.

He also thought about the victims. He also thought about the offenders who were given no opportunity to make amends or learn just how much they might have hurt another person.

"He was creative," Call said. "He would make me nervous."

Wittman wanted to try things that would help keep even violent offenders out of jail, or reduce their sentences. The last thing Call needed from a program he supervised as an elected official, was some violent offender committing another crime while out of jail.

But Wittman persisted. He applied for more grants -- during his tenure, Wittman brought in more than $6 million to expand and fund Genesee Justice -- and implmented new programs.

These included:

  • Victim's Assistance
  • Judicial Diversion
  • Justice for Children
  • Child Advocacy
  • Justice for Women
  • Release Under Supervision (a Probation Department program until 2002)
  • DWI-Conditional Discharge (a brainchild of District Attorney Lawrence Friedman)

But it would be restorative justice that would grab national headlines, making both   Dennis Wittman and Genesee Justice household names in the restorative justice community.

Wittman has spoken to criminal justice and restorative justice groups in 40 states plus Japan and Canada. He received another 2,500 invitations to speak in Europe that he was unable to accept.

Even County Manager Jay Gsell, the author of a county budget proposal that will close the book on Genesee Justice, has previously recognized the work of Wittman's pioneering efforts.

"We don’t hear a lot (of complaints)" from the community," Gsell said in an interview several years ago.

... (Gsell) sees (this) as a “sort of testimonial to the success” of Genesee Justice. If it weren’t working, “I think we would hear what I’d call the strict constructionist saying, ‘Look at all these bleeding-heart liberals. Crime is running rampant in the streets of Genesee County and Batavia, and all these miscreants are out on the streets; we can’t deal with this; let’s lock everybody down,’" he says. “We’re not hearing that.”

The success stories related to Genesee Justice could fill a book, but only a few have been told.

There is the story of Joseph Minotti, a chronic drunken driver given a chance, after his seventh arrest, a felony charge this time, at rehabilitation. Eventually, Minotti would move to Erie County, remain clean and sober and start his own business.

Or "Ryan" and "Toby," two teens who trashed some school property and were given a chance to make amends.

Wittman recalled the story of a Le Roy teen, high on drugs, who shot and wounded another youth on Main Street. Wittman organized a community reconciliation meeting at a church in Le Roy. There was a spectrum of community members, plus the offender, the victim and the parents.

They talked through what happened. The young man heard firsthand how his crime affected his victim and the community. He agreed to get help for his drug problems.

TV journalist Geraldo Rivera heard about the intervention and invited Wittman, Judge Morton, the offender and the victim to fly to New York City and appear on his show.

The offender stayed out of jail, stayed clean and out of trouble, according to Wittman, until he died in a tragic accident a few years ago.

Call remembered a youth who was a habitual offender and charged with a serious offense. The judge wanted to send him to jail, but Wittman intervened. He convinced the judge to let the youth volunteer at the Senior Center on Bank Street. 

The youth spent six months there, helping out in a variety of capacities, and getting to know the seniors who came to the programs there.

At the end of his six months, the seniors organized a going-away potluck lunch. They invited the sheriff, the DA and the judge.

The also invited the youth's father, who said, according to Call, "I'm so proud of my son today. My son was no good. He was a criminal and didn't care about what happened. I'm so proud that he did this."

Call added, "Dennis could make somebody constructively responsible for their conduct. He could bring about restorative justice instead of just warehousing them."

Two weeks ago, Wittman underwent a kidney transplant.

He's had a series of major health issues since 2005, starting with a heart attack. He has been admitted to ICU in Erie County twice, and twice at UMMC, where a liver problem caused him to bleed so much the entire ICU unit was covered in his blood. The doctor gave him only a 10-pecent chance to live.

Eventually, he had a liver transplant.

His health issues, he admits, are at least partly caused by the work and the stress that went into creating Genesee Justice.

"When you're a visionary, when you're innovative, you will have a lot of critics," he said. "Mostly, I just tried to ignore the sharpshooters."

At age 67, Wittman is disappointed to see that his life work might be undone.

"I feel bad that Jay (Gsell) has given up on it," Wittman said. "I don't think probation can do it. You've got to have the vision, the heart, the drive to make it work.

"They all want a free ride," Wittman added, with his voice rising for the only time in our interview. "How much of a free ride do they want? We brought in $6.3 million into this county (in grants), but they still want a free ride. If you want quality, you've got to pay for it."

Photo: Dennis Wittman with Kodah, a previous winner of The Batavian's "Pet of the Week."

JoAnne Rock
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Mr. Wittman certainly left some big shoes to fill. Great story Howard.
Bea McManis
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Thanks for the background story, Howard. Well done. It is obvious that there were, and still are, visionaries in our county who made Genesee Justice work. It also explains why those in the legal community went to the front to protest closing down Genesee Justice.
Laura Russell Ricci
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Thank you for the insightful and well written article about this great part of our history and hopefully our future.
Lorie Longhany
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Thanks Howard. I never knew the history of Genesee Justice. I do recall the day I caught the "political bug". It was a long November election day of poll watching that ended with a visionary and genuinely good man being elected as Genesee County sheriff in 1980. Then I followed my husband to his duty station and never had the chance to see what that election meant. Now I know the rest of the story.
Ken Herrmann
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Interesting article. Too many forget the wonderful contributions Call, Graney, Wittman, and others have made to the County's criminal justice system. Closing the Criminal Justice Program woluld be criminal. Rejecting a program that works, saves lives and money, and showcases Genesee County both nationally and internationally would, quite frankly, be idiotic.
Neil Gagne
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Thank you so much, Howard, for getting the full story out there. I think most people in Genesee County have no idea of the history and success behind Genesee Justice, and just see its combination with Probation as just a way to save some money. I agree that then-Sheriff Call and Mr. Wittman are both visionaries. I can speak from personal experience as a result of having worked at Genesee Justice for 2 years that current Director Ed Minardo fully shares their vision and is totally dedicated to continuing their work, holding offenders accountable for their actions, and ensuring that victims receive the support they deserve in their time of need. While it may be true that consolidating Genesee Justice with Probation may save the County a relatively small amount of money in the short run, I believe that that savings will be soon be offset by a quickly rising jail population and the need to expand the current jail and/or construct an entirely new facility. I just hope that the Genesee County Legislature will see the folly in going for the quick savings, and will see the big picture and realize that in the long run, eliminating Genesee Justice will most likely result in a much higher tax burden for the citizens of our county. That's not to mention the impact to quality of life in Genesee County.
John Roach
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Bea and Lorie, Since almost nobody is saying that GJ is not a good program, how do think it should be paid for? A property tax increase or a sales tax increase?
Kyle Couchman
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Gee John, where will the money come from if GJ is done away with and we have to pay for board outs and a new Jail or addition to the one currently in use. Cant keep taxes from rising forever and in this bleak economy this budget item is very unrealistic. It seems the budget is mor of a political tool this year, saying "see how good we are, we dont have to raise taxes" while in this particular case it's obvious that the savings will cost more down the road....Making it someone elses problem. More like 'pass the buck' than a real savings.
Bea McManis
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John, Perhaps you should ask the lawyers and judges, who stood up in favor of GJ, how they would propose it be funded. I'm sure they would have a far more credible answer than you would ever accept from me.
John Roach
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Kyle, They have to make up about $5 million dollars this coming year. You're one vote for a tax increase to keep the program, no problem. But which do you think is best, a property or sales tax increase?
John Roach
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Bea, Nice dodge by you.
Kyle Couchman
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Does it really matter John? In my honest opinion its a quarter one way or two dimes and a nickel the other. Property owners shoulder the bill it will cause people to dispute tax assesment or make people move out. Whereas raising the sales tax may drive people to shop outside the county. I've always thought the sales tax a much more 'Fair' way to tax as it evenly distributes the burden among everyone in an equitable manner. Rich who buy alot pay alot and poor who buy little pay little, its the way it should be, people dont like it cause it it is even handed and feel they shouldn't have to do what everyone else does, and thats at both ends of the spectrum, the rich feel entitled and that they shouldn't have to pay. The poor feel they shouldnt have to pay the same as some rich person. Also I dont think I'm just 'One' vote there John, but I consider myself in good company as I'm sure the judges and laywers of this county seem to be in full support of keeping it as well.
Julie Morales
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Mr. Wittman received over six million dollars in grants to fund this program. Are grants no longer a viable source of funding? Is anyone currently responsible for researching and applying for grants?
Howard B. Owens
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Julie, everybody I've talked to said grants are much harder to get. "These are tough times," Dennis said. Grants aren't really meant to be a perpetual source of funding. Many of these grants were designated to help start innovative programs. Once established and proven, the idea was they would prove worth ongoing funding.
C. M. Barons
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It is both intuitively sensible and research-supported that communities that invest in incarceration alternatives have a lower criminal recidivism rate than those that do not. If saving the expense of a new jail facility does not convince taxpayers that GJ is cost-effective, consider 10 - 20% increases in recidivism- what's the burden of that cost on our community? Geneseeans should note the immense favor that Graney, Wittman et al did for our county. It was not simply a new approach; it has become the model for virtually all subsequent alternative programs. Most significantly, GJ has defied its detractors with decades of success. How much is it worth- knowing that society can keep its hands clean of dealing with criminals, while GJ rehabilitates, offers victim assistance and keeps jail costs under restraint?
John Roach
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CM, Detention/incarceration alternatives are a good idea, and do save money. And while you say the program has had detractors for decades, I have not heard anyone say anything bad about them. Even now it not the program, but the cost that is the issue. It's the other services GJ provides besides jail diversion that need to be looked at. Services for victims are great, but should Genesee County provide them? Should they be paid for with tax money, contract them out or drop them.
Bea McManis
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John, Rather than ask leading questions so you can shoot down the answers, why not give us YOUR take on this. Stop playing devil's advocate and tell us where you stand.
Bea McManis
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Posted by John Roach on November 26, 2010 - 3:37pm CM, Detention/incarceration alternatives are a good idea, and do save money. And while you say the program has had detractors for decades, I have not heard anyone say anything bad about them. Didn't you read Peter's post where a day after he asked what Genesee Justice was, he determined it was worthless and that he knew more than any of the judges and lawyers who stood up for the program. I'd call that one very vocal detractor.
John Roach
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Bea, If you think Peter's one comment qualifies as CM's decades of detraction, you're strange. My opinion is that if there is a tax increase, it should be on the sales tax. That why people like yourself who do not pay property taxes, share in the burden. Now, no more dodge, what do you think?
Bea McManis
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I'm all for a sales tax increase. ...and I DID pay county tax for years. As I expected your final Friday night insult would be coming. Strange, imbecile, lack credibility, etc. The list just goes on and on. Why bother asking for an opinion, when you already know you are going to add another insult? Frankly, at this point, please don't bother addressing me again. I have far bigger fish to fry than you and no longer have the patience or the desire to cross swords with you on any issue.
Mark Potwora
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Why can't all these so called reformed criminals pay for GJ...Make the fines higher ..Do something to make them pay for the cost of the expense of showing them how to not committ crimes..Don't make the taxpayer keep eating all these costs.. There is the story of Joseph Minotti, a chronic drunken driver given a chance, after his seventh arrest, a felony charge this time, at rehabilitation. Eventually, Minotti would move to Erie County, remain clean and sober and start his own business. This guy should of been locked up for a long time..What if he had killed someone in all those drunk driving sprees..How much has he paid back to GJ...Let people like him pay for the total cost of all services he used...
John Roach
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Bea, I never said you were an imbecile, you made that up. But you took one comment (made by Peter) to equal comments said to have gone on for decades. I do think it is strange how you made that connection. For the record, I have never heard anyone saying but good things about GJ. But we at least agree on the sales tax.
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I fully agree that Genesee Justice is needed in Genesee County, and I agree with Neil... Posted by Neil Gagne on November 26, 2010 - 10:01am: While it may be true that consolidating Genesee Justice with Probation may save the County a relatively small amount of money in the short run, I believe that that savings will be soon be offset by a quickly rising jail population and the need to expand the current jail and/or construct an entirely new facility. Hacksaw Jay Gsell has just about cut every asset and resource Genesee county has to offer. No future City manager will ever look so good, because their hands will be tied as nothing will be left to cut. Jay will retire one day and too bad for the next guy! I worked for the county for 5 years. I have seen first hand how things get manipulated to make it look to the public that they should have gotten rid of this dept or that dept. People lose jobs when this happens! We used to have homecare services through Genesee County Health Dept. Insurance paid $125 for Nursing visits, and each nurse did an average of 25 visits per week. There were 9 nurses, you add it up. Yes there are other costs involved, but when managed appropriately it was a real money maker! Money was forwarded to the county coffers regularly, and Early intervention services (which is unrelated to nursing) were funded entirely by this money! P.T. visits brought in $110 each, as did O.T. visits. Unfortunately G.C.H.D was mismanaged by the county. People who were not treated well left and management chose to not hire more. They continued to let the workers leave without hiring replacements until there were too few working to turn a profit. Then they waited and announced to the public it was "losing money for years"...by then it had! I read the article in the Daily, what rubbish! It is all in the way you manipulate the facts. Where did all the big money go that came in for selling to HomeCare of Rochester? Where are all those displaced county workers? Where is the huge gain after dumping this supposed huge money burner? HUH! I don't care which, raise my property tax or raise my sales tax, I vote to keep GJ thank you.
Howard B. Owens
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When people are rehabilitated and become productive tax-paying citizens, they are making an economic contribution to programs such as Genesee Justice.
Mark Potwora
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How is that Howard ,unless they are homeowners and paying property tax they might be paying for some of GJ budget..But as per that example of the 7 time dwi felon he left the county how is he paying back GJ...It's the ones who live by the rules and stay out of trouble are made to pay for these screw ups...I just think that maybe there should be some special extra tax they should all have to pay ..Another thing that gets me is when they put the pictures of those drug court grads in the paper..big deal..What about all those that don't have to go to drug court,why not honor them..
Howard B. Owens
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That's only one example out of hundreds, Mark. Guy in jail: drain on tax payers. Guy with a job or business: taxpayer. Simple math. Further, if the guy leaves Genesee County, he's still paying federal taxes, which helps us. If offenders are paying back anything, it should go to their victims. Also, there is almost always some fine assessed against offenders. That would seem to qualify as an "additional tax" as you propose.
C. M. Barons
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John, I didn't say "decades of detractors;" I said, "decades of success." I'll forgive your dyslexia. Other than during formative discussion, I've never heard anyone pan the GJ program until recent scrutiny as a budget-breaker. It's pure conjecture, but the Sheriff's office has been pushing for a new jail- citing lack of facilities for female inmates. If a successful incarceration-alternative amounts to an inertial force, an argument against expanding/replacing the existing jail, perhaps therein a motivation to pare-down GJ.
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Mark, what makes you think that people who DONT pay property taxes as owners dont contribute. You think landlords pay their property taxes out of their own profits and bottom lines? It's not the case, when property taxes go up rents go up, and I mean all rents. Stores are calculated by $ per sqft and most commercial leases have cost of living increases built in, so prop taxes go up so do rents. This ripples down to even the people, prop taxes go up people get a letter from their landlord about increases in rent. So even if you arent a homeowner school and property tax increases still affaect you as well. Everyone lives somewhere....
Howard B. Owens
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C.M., I get no sense from the Sheriff that he wants a new jail. He said quite explicitly to me that such an idea is unrealistic. Further, it still looks like it's more cost effective to house the female prisoners in other counties than build a new jail. There has been talk of some sort of joint facility with Orleans and/or Wyoming, but that proposal appears to be going nowhere from what I'm hearing.

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