By including the “Close to Home” initiative in his 2012 budget proposal, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed major reforms to New York’s troubled juvenile justice system. The initiative, which will authorize New York City to keep all but its most serious offending youth here in the city, will improve both public safety and outcomes for the city’s young people who have run afoul of the law. Parents will be involved in their child’s rehabilitation and youth will earn school credit while in placement, which is the juvenile justice system’s term for confinement.
In December 2010, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg visited the Finger Lakes Residential Center with the Reverend Al Sharpton. Upon his return, Mr. Bloomberg summed up what he saw: “The facilities run by the State are relics of a bygone era, when troubled city kids were stripped from their families and shipped to detention centers in remote rural areas.”
Mr. Cuomo echoed those sentiments in his first State of the State address. Since then the governor’s and mayor’s staffs have been working together to lay the groundwork for a continuum of residential and alternative to placement programs in or near New York City.
The initiative builds on Mr. Bloomberg’s record of success in ensuring public safety by keeping young people with their families connected to intensive rehabilitative services whenever possible. Since 2002, New York City has reduced the number of young people sent to state custody by 62 percent, without any increase in crime.
In fact, the number of juvenile arrests for major felonies decreased by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Over the past two years, the number of youth placed in state facilities as a result of probation violations dropped by 25 percent, while the felony re-arrest rate for juveniles on probation declined by 10 percent. New York City administration efforts, in collaboration with the Family Court and the state, have kept more of our youth close to home without compromising public safety.
Juvenile offenders convicted of the most serious crimes will remain upstate. Mr. Cuomo’s proposal will only impact New York City youth whose Family Court disposition includes a limited-secure or non-secure placement. Family Court judges will retain discretion to set minimum sentences for young people placed in limited-secure placements, generally the most serious in Family Court.
“Close to Home” leverages Mr. Bloomberg’s decision to fold the city’s juvenile justice agency into the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), which will oversee the city’s juvenile justice facilities. Thanks to the merger, ACS now has the expertise and capacity to ensure that decisions about a young person’s treatment, supervision and confinement are guided by the public’s safety and the needs and interests of youth and their families.
The benefits of a system that treats, supervises and, when necessary and ordered by the Family Court, confines young people are significant. Keeping youth close to home ensures that their parents may participate meaningfully in their rehabilitation. New York City parents will no longer have to travel hundreds of miles, often by bus, to visit their children. Instead, they will be able to take the subway to visit them. Young people placed in New York City will be educated in either New York City public schools or by public school teachers so that credits earned while they are placed will be counted towards their graduation.
According to a growing body of evidence, intensive community-based programs yield fewer re-arrests than placement when young people are identified for these programs using a validated risk assessment instrument.
Since 2007, ACS has offered the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI), a set of evidence-based programs, for young people at serious risk of placement. Juvenile Justice programs focus on the ability of the young person’s parents to set limits, assigning a master’s-level social worker to the family who works intensively with the parent and young person to change the behaviors that caused the young person to commit the delinquent act. The program has reduced re-arrest rates for youth in Juvenile Justice since its inception, meeting expectations.
The newly-established residential facilities will be monitored by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. ACS will ensure programmatic quality through its division of policy, planning and measurement. The youth will have unprecedented access to their families and, critically, to their lawyers. The New York City Council and the Public Advocate will provide oversight to the city’s entire juvenile justice system, as the services will be provided through city agencies.
Key city stakeholders have been meeting to think about how the new system should function. The committee—which includes representatives from Family Court, the mayor’s office, the New York City Law Department, Legal Aid Society, the New York Police Department, the New York City Council, ACS, the city’s Department of Probation and its Department of Education, the Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator, the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and members of the advocacy community—has agreed to a structured decision-making model that will utilize risk assessment and offense severity to guide probation recommendations at the point a youth is before the court for disposition of their delinquency case.
The use of the structured decision-making model will assure the public’s safety and provide for a rational and effective use of the new network of programs and facilities.
We now look to our elected leaders in the New York Senate and Assembly to enact the “Close to Home” initiative so that our young people have a fair chance to emerge successfully from our juvenile justice system.
With the passage of this groundbreaking legislation, our youth will still have to pay the price for their delinquent conduct and commit themselves to rehabilitation, but they will be able to do so with their families at their side.
Vincent N. Schiraldi is commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation. Ronald E. Richter is commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and a former Family Court judge.