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October 2012

Homecoming: Juvenile Justice Reform Comes to New York

Youth leaders at the Safe Passages Program of the Correctional Association. Photo courtesy of Juvenile Justice Project.
Rarely is an economic downturn something to be thankful for, but when it comes to juvenile justice reform in New York State, the rotten economy probably deserves some credit. Reform has come at last with Close to Home, legislation that will allow juvenile delinquents to serve sentences in their own communities rather than in upstate facilities.

Signed in March by Governor Cuomo, Close to Home builds on years of advocacy by countless lobbyists, community members, and youth service organizations. But what really pushed Albany to reform the dysfunctional juvenile justice system was its price tag. The existing system was dysfunctional, but it was also expensive. Albany realized that reform could mean valuable savings.

In the past, family court judges sentenced juvenile delinquents to terms at upstate residential facilities operated by the State’s Office of Children and Family Services. These juvenile programs cost an estimated $250,000+ per child annually. Despite their staggering price tag, they did little to help young people who had committed crimes: 66 percent were rearrested within two years, and 82 percent of the boys were arrested on felony charges by age 28. Conditions at the facilities were bad, kids were subjected to corporal punishment, and those who needed mental health care were neglected. And it was difficult for families to make the trip upstate to visit.

Over the last five years, The Trust had provided a total of $475,000 to organizations fighting for juvenile justice reform. We funded the Correctional Association of New York and Fight Crime New York’s efforts in 2007 to build legislative support for Re-Direct New York, an earlier attempt to redirect funds from youth incarceration to alternative programs. Years of lobbying had gotten the issue attention in Albany, but new legislation was slow to emerge. Public Interest Projects was managing similar efforts across the country for the MacArthur Foundation, and with our grant hired M+R Strategic Services to push the campaign in New York. M+R assembled a team of experts who worked with another grantee, the Juvenile Justice Advocacy and Action Project, the only organized coalition in New York advocating for reform of the State’s juvenile justice system.

Roderick Jenkins, Trust program officer, says that the coalition’s strategic campaign was essential to passing Close to Home legislation. He says that campaign has taught him that “you have to hammer away at reform and have more than just the usual suspects at the table. You have to have logic, data, and statistics behind you.”

The sad fact about juvenile delinquency is that it follows a person into adult life; just a few misdemeanors or a single felony can preclude access to federal loans for college or housing. Employers are usually jumpy about hiring someone with a criminal record, even one with a minor crime. And if that’s not enough to dissuade them, a former delinquent’s lack of a high school diploma surely will. Detention interrupts young people’s progress so gravely that they often give up on earning a high school diploma, a basic requirement for most jobs.

Close to Home has garnered widespread praise from advocates and providers, but it’s only the first major step towards addressing these lasting consequences. As Fateerah, an 18-year-old youth leader in the Safe Passages Program of the Juvenile Justice Project at the Correctional Association points out, “Youth in detention are most often youth of color. There is already a stereotype that they don’t finish high school. Youth in facilities who are not able to get their diplomas are only increasing that stereotype. Close to Home must make sure that youth are able to work toward their diplomas. And they must provide sufficient support in that process.”

Peter, another youth leader at Safe Passages, believes that Close to Home will be “a first step toward a positive outcome” for youth in placement and help them “stay more a part of their communities.” “Youth must be able to maintain relationships with family,” Peter says. “This will ensure less emotional damage to children.”

The last pieces of the legislation needed will get non-violent 16- and 17-year-olds offenders treated as juveniles and protect current levels of public funding for alternative programs. Private support is needed to ensure that court-involved New York City kids mandated to alternative programs thrive. If justice programs can ensure academic success and emotional well-being for young people who’ve gotten into trouble with the law, they stand a much better chance of putting the mistakes of their youth behind them.

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