New York State spends $215,000 per year to expose each vulnerable child in its unsafe juvenile prisons to months spent far from home, with inadequate mental health care, and an increased likelihood of reoffending upon their release. The juvenile justice system neither rehabilitates youth nor keeps communities safe.
Worst of all, a staggering 53 percent of youth in the state’s juvenile justice system are locked up for misdemeanor offenses. A majority of these youth, 86 percent, are Black and Latino. They should not even be on the radar of the prison system. Closing ineffective, under-utilized juvenile prisons and reinvesting in communities can provide the necessary means for revamping this system in crisis. As New York faces a $3.2 billion deficit, we cannot afford to waste another penny on a costly system that harms our social fabric.
Last week’s critical report by the New York Governor’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice provides a roadmap towards tackling the system’s crisis. The Governor’s Task Force calls for decreased use of incarceration, reinvestment of funds into community-based programs, expansion of community-based alternatives to incarceration, more re-entry services, an increased focus on positive youth development and rehabilitation, establishment of an independent oversight body, reduction of racial disparities – including data collection on all points in the system, and regular progress reports on the status of implementation of their recommendations.
The Governor’s Task Force report comes at an opportune time, on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found rampant child abuse by staff in New York’s juvenile prisons and threatened a full federal takeover of the system.
Commissioner Gladys Carrión, head of the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) — the state agency that oversees New York’s juvenile placement system — has shown remarkable leadership in closing facilities, improving restraint policies, instituting therapeutic programming, and moving the state towards a smaller, community-based model since her appointment to the post in January 2007.
Yet, efforts towards reform continue to face resistance from facility employees unions. Many of these staff members rely on a punitive correctional culture and fear a loss of upstate jobs if court-involved children remain closer to home. This opposition does not change the fact that rehabilitative, youth-development oriented approaches, and keeping youth near their families, are the most effective ways to keep children from committing future crimes.
Advocates, youth and communities have been calling for an overhaul of New York’s juvenile system for decades. For the past two years, The New York Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System, of which I am the coordinator, has made a concerted effort to turn the tide. We meet with system stakeholders; empower communities, youth and advocates; and engage the media, to eliminate the overuse of juvenile arrest, incarceration and racially biased policies and practices. We endorse the recommendations of the Governor’s Task Force; and also demand that all system agencies collect and publicly report data broken down by race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and offense type; that the state increase its upper juvenile court jurisdiction age from 16 to 18 years old; and support legislation called Re-Direct NY, which would provide fiscal incentives for local governments to invest in alternatives to detention and community-based programs.
We are also seeking to expedite the New York juvenile justice system’s transformation into a smaller, community-based, therapeutic, youth-development focused system like Missouri, where only eight percent of youth reoffend.
We have nothing to lose but mammoth costs to the state for current juvenile recidivism rates as high as 81 percent for girls and 89 percent for boys. We have our children’s success, public safety, and taxpayer savings to gain. Community based programs and alternatives to incarceration cost as little as $10,000 per youth, have recidivism rates as low as 15 percent, and can teach youth the skills they need to become productive, law-abiding citizens.
I have worked in juvenile justice for eight years, after seeing a heartbreaking film by the Rosalynn Carter Center about the severe mental health needs of youth in detention facilities. Seeing so many young people fighting to survive, immersed in emotional turmoil met with barbed wire and concrete walls, changed my life. I am still flabbergasted that in this great nation, children are locked up and shipped far away when they have social service needs and a lack of opportunities at home.
In addition to wholesale juvenile justice reform, New York desperately needs more enlightened citizens to care about what happens to at-risk youth. Court-involved children turn their lives around when surrounded by positive adults and peers, developmentally appropriate programming, and the chance to dream and find their way. If more of us challenge ourselves to see potential in every child, regardless of their skin color, economic situation, or brush with the law, New York State can lead the nation not only in juvenile justice, but in positive life outcomes for youth.