This piece originally appeared on The New York World.
Two of Euphemia Adams’ sons have been through New York City’s juvenile justice system. Based on the nature of the boys’ charges, which included assault and robbery, both were placed in facilities upstate—well over 100 miles from their home in Staten Island.
“I had to take the bus to the ferry, ferry to the train, and then I went to Metro North and had to take another train up to visit,” their mother recalled recently. “When the kids are upstate, it takes more time to get to visit them than you have to actually be with them.”
One of her sons made it out and is now a stay-at-home dad with two children of his own. Another ended up heading back into crime, and to adult prison. Adams can’t help but wonder: Had the second son been housed in a facility closer to home, would he have had a much better chance at rehabilitation?
New York State appears set to embark on an experiment to find out. Following years in which New York City’s juvenile offenders were sent upstate for rehabilitation, only to fall back into crime, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget for fiscal year 2013 includes a proposal to keep New York City’s young detainees near their families. If approved by the legislature, the governor’s plan would give New York City the authority to stop sending juvenile offenders upstate, as long as the courts determine they don’t need to be placed in a secure facility.
For years, the recidivism rate among the city’s juveniles has vexed the agencies and advocates that try to help them. Approximately 350 young city residents at any time are detained in facilities operated by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), the majority of them located upstate, in towns where the facilities serve as important sources of employment.
As the city seeks nonprofit organizations to run non-secure facilities in the five boroughs, unions representing workers at the state-run facilities are pushing back. They contend the city is not in a position to provide either the services or security that sent juveniles offenders hundreds of miles from home in the first place.
Members of two of the state’s labor unions—the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation—say the Cuomo plan, known as Close to Home, suffers from lack of clear strategy. Together, the unions represent approximately 5,000 OCFS employees, and members could lose hundreds of jobs.
Representatives maintained that employment losses were not their main concern. “The issue is whether or not this is good public policy,” said Stephen Madarasz, director of communications for the Civil Service Employees Union. “In the case of this proposal, there is no plan. There’s really no plan explaining how this is going to work. It’s just a concept that they’re going to do.”
Taurina Carpenter of the Public Employees Federation put the stakes even more strongly. “They’re putting the community at risk. They’re putting the kids at risk,” she said, referring to the Cuomo administration. “These kids are way more difficult to handle than they know.”
Indeed, juvenile offenders are typically sent upstate for one of two main reasons: They have either been charged with a designated felony—a legal term encompassing violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping and arson—or the courts have decided that they need services best offered by upstate facilities, such as drug abuse programs or a high level of mental health services.
According to Jacqueline Pittman, whose son was sent upstate to the Tryon juvenile justice facility when he was 12, these services often leave much to be desired. “There was no type of support from the staff,” she said. “They just made the kids feel down.”
Avery Irons, director of Youth Justice Programs for the Children’s Defense Fund – New York, agreed that state services have not always lived up to their promise. “The point of the OCFS facilities was to have a greater level of security but also a greater level of service for kids that have higher needs,” she said. “They’ve for many years failed in that mandate, but they are trying to reform now.”
It might be too late.
Close to Home seeks to reboot a system that currently sees 89 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls who have been released from a state facility get rearrested by their 28th birthday, according to the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. The advisory group noted that Ohio, Illinois and California, as well as Michigan’s Wayne County, home to Detroit, are among the states and localities that have witnessed a reduction in crime and recidivism after shifting their juvenile justice systems “from centralized state-run facilities to local continuums of care.”
“The general theory is people—kids, in this case—are better off close to home,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit reform organization. “When you look at the results of the kids who go up, who are not close to home, this would have to be pretty bad to be worse than that…. It’s basically not mathematically possible.”
A plan for keeping juvenile offenders within New York City will not emerge until the Close to Home legislation has passed, according to Tia Waddy, a spokeswoman for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees juvenile detention for the city. However, during a forum at The New School on Feb. 2, agency Commissioner Ron Richter expressed strong support for the proposal.
Said Richter, “I don’t think that you can for a moment not stop and cherish the opportunity to have New York City’s youth moved hundreds of miles south to actually be confined—when necessary—in locations that are just miles away from their mothers and fathers and siblings to be rehabilitated.”