Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Becky Miller
The first time I heard Niki Samtani, BC ’21, describe her job as an intern case manager for an alternative sentencing program, we were somewhere between New York City and Boston with something between Fergie and Nicki Minaj playing over the speakers. She had taken a phone call from a client moments before we left, and I remember wondering how someone so young could be authorized to conduct court-mandated check-ins with people, all of them her senior. I was struck by how effortlessly she gave off the air of a veteran social worker as she asked them how they were doing with a mix of warmth and professionalism.
In the car, I learned that Samtani works for CASES—short for the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services—but it wasn’t until we FaceTimed a couple of months later that I learned the extent of what that meant. Samtani dedicates around 30 hours per week to her job. In addition to staff meetings and intern training, she spends that time talking to her 13 personal clients on the phone. Some she talks to weekly, some she checks in with once a month; some want to discuss their day and chat for 30 minutes, some keep it short and hang up within five. They have diverse backgrounds, but all were mandated by a New York City judge to talk to a social worker who will manage their specific cases as an intermediary alternative to incarceration. Without a degree in social work or even a Bachelor’s (yet), Samtani is the person who calls them.
At only 21 years old, Samtani was offered a job as a direct case manager at CASES and slowly built her caseload up to the 13 clients she works with now. The job requires substantial empathy and personability, traits that Samtani not only possesses but embraces. Her fascination with her job informs her work ethic. She forms relationships with her clients based on clarity, trust, and her signature warmth, and talks about them as if they were members of her own family.
At CASES, Samtani assists people in locating mental health resources, job opportunities, and rental assistance programs, among many other services. She has recently been helping one of her clients get certified to be a fire guard. The work offers her a window into their lives: She told me she feels most excited when she hears that a client was able to get a GED prep book or someone had a really great walk with their dog that afternoon. Her days and weeks are peppered with phone calls, FaceTimes, and Zoom meetings that require her to be wholly invested in her clients’ lives.
Samtani must remind herself that while for her, these conversations may be her job, potential career path, and a significant weekly endeavor, “for the client, it’s a very small part of their life.” Samtani’s grounded perspective and sensitive approach to CASES and social work did not surprise me after she explained her philosophy about the criminal justice system in America and what a world centered on restorative justice can look like.
In her vision, obtaining justice requires forgiveness, an idea in almost direct opposition to the current framework of the American criminal justice system. Existing mechanisms for dealing with crime discourage even basic methods of repairing relationships necessary for true healing: in court, for example, an apology is seen as an admission of guilt rather than a step towards reconciliation. “The criminal justice system is fundamentally set up so that no one can forgive,” Samtani explained.
To her, the way our country imagines conflict resolution is entirely backwards, and the predominant method of dealing with violent offences—incarceration—perpetuates, even requires, the absence of pathways to forgiveness. Through working with CASES and other restorative justice initiatives like GOSO, a New York community reentry program, and tutoring at Rikers Island, Samtani hopes to be a part of a shift towards a justice system built upon a foundation of restorative justice.
In New York and across the country, methods of sentencing and justice beyond incarceration are growing more and more common. The city has plans to close Rikers Island by 2026 and replace it with four smaller jails in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Studies show that incarceration does little to improve community safety, and that alternatives, like CASES, which emphasize job training, mental health services, and educational opportunities rehabilitate people far more effectively than jail time. Samtani, a true believer in new restorative justice initiatives, still insists on identifying the flaws. As a case manager, she is required to “report” on her clients, letting her superiors know if someone misses a meeting. It’s one of the few parts of the job she doesn’t like, as it changes her role from advocate to messenger, even supervisor. She sees it as going against the goal of restorative justice—to treat people, all people, like human beings.
When Samtani graduates, she hopes to pursue degrees in social work and law, working at the intersection of those two disciplines and continuing to question how to address crime without incarceration. She admitted that social work gets a “bad rap,” but to her, it offers a venue to spend her professional life exploring the themes of oppression, power, and privilege so pervasive in our society. By centering the basics—“communication and connection and forgiveness”—Samtani relentlessly prioritizes those whom our systems of justice and rehabilitation should be designed to serve: the people around us.