Project Zero, of the New York City Department of Probation (DOP), is a reform effort that has enhanced the rationality, consistency, and effectiveness of New York's juvenile justice system, and reduced its reliance upon youth incarceration. Developed in 2003 under the leadership of DOP Commissioner Martin Horn, Project Zero has catalyzed improvements in both the predisposition (pretrial processing) and post-disposition (sentencing) phases of cases involving juvenile delinquents.
In the predisposition phase, Project Zero has enhanced the intake process and provided low-risk youth with non-judicial sanctions and services. Enhanced intake allows probation officers to be more informed when making decisions whether to divert a case involving a youth from Family Court in order to offer social service alternatives or impose sanctions; or to refer the child for prosecution. Project Zero developed the Risk Assessment Instrument, an evidence-based assessment tool used to standardize decisions to detain or release a youth offender while their case is pending. In addition, a Continuum of Alternatives to Detention was created to guide decisions regarding options and levels of supervision and service provision based on a juvenile delinquent's risk level.
In preparation for instituting reforms affecting post disposition, DOP analyzed a large cohort of past probationers to identify risk factors and assets that accurately predict a youth's likelihood of successfully completing probation or reoffending. The resulting document was the Probation Assessment Tool, a decision-making model that assists in the determination of appropriate sentences. DOP also developed two "Alternative to Incarceration" programs for juvenile offenders: Esperanza and Enhanced Supervision Probation (ESP). Through the Esperanza program, youth involved with the justice system and their families receive six months of in-home counseling. ESP pairs medium-to-high-risk youth with particular probation officers who have low caseloads (and thus more time to devote to particularly difficult cases) as well as access to discretionary funds to provide incentives and services for their charges.
Project Zero boasts significant evidence of its achievements. Since 2003, Project Zero has increased the number of juveniles receiving community and social services by over 100 percent—up from 1,000 per year to now over 2,000. It has also reduced the number of juveniles incarcerated annually by 11 percent despite a 35 percent increase in youth arrests over the same period. Roughly 1,700 youth offenders have been placed in alternative to incarceration programming (1,100 in ESP and 605 in Esperanza), which have been credited with reduced recidivism rates. Of Esperanza youth, the number of youth who have remained out of incarceration for 9 months after completing probation has increased from 50 to 74 percent as a result of the these reforms. Furthermore, the reforms have led to significant cost savings for both the city and state; Project Zero has saved the city of New York over $11,250,000 by reducing the number of costly youth incarcerations.