Last month, Governor David A. Paterson acknowledged the tragic flaws in our state’s juvenile justice system when he settled a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Justice over unconstitutional conditions at four state facilities for young offenders.
The case against the state documented routine abuse of young people, leaving them with concussions, broken teeth and broken bones for trivial infractions like talking in line or swiping extra dessert at meal time. The governor’s own task force and the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, Gladys Carrion, have found that these same troubling conditions exist system-wide. Indeed, the Legal Aid Society has filed a system-wide lawsuit, raising the potential of years of institutional litigation and court oversight.
The governor and Commissioner Carrion were right to settle the Justice Department suit and to have entered into negotiations over the Legal Aid Society suit (as reported by the Law Journal on Aug. 24) so they can focus on the system’s real problems, but the settlement is far from a panacea. For one thing, the agreement only covers four of the state’s 23 facilities. Furthermore, it is slated to terminate in three years. It is difficult to imagine resolving the systemic problems that have been building up for decades with an agreement tailored as narrowly as this one, even with the best of intentions.
To create a true transformation of this deeply troubled system, policy makers would do well to view the reform effort like a three-legged stool. If any one leg is neglected, the effort threatens to tip and fall.
One leg is facility conditions, and the governor deserves credit for addressing that in the recent agreement, although years of work will be necessary to change the culture that exists in OCFS facilities.
The second leg is facility closures, and we encourage the governor—already a leader in this area—to redouble his efforts. Over the past several years, New York City has substantially reduced the number of low-risk youth we send to state facilities, allowing the governor to close 13 brutal and ineffective upstate institutions.
But while the state has closed many facilities, far too many are still in operation, fully staffed and with only a handful of youth in them. The latest and most shocking news on this front came on Aug. 4, when the Village Voice reported that the notorious Tryon Boys Residential Center is now completely empty of young people, yet it still employs 60 staff members!
Since the city and counties pay for half the costs of OCFS placements, fully staffing empty facilities costs state and local budgets millions. For example, despite the fact that New York City has 62 percent fewer young people in custody today than in 2002, we will pay an estimated $24 million more this fiscal year than in 2002.
While much of this money is going to pay over-staffed, under-populated facilities, some of it is also ostensibly slated to fund more services. In anticipation of the settlement, for example, Governor Paterson’s administration proposed spending $18 million to address the Justice Department’s criticisms, such as the lack of mental health services in state facilities. But at the same time, it proposed cutting $16 million from alternative local programs that were keeping low-risk youth in their home communities. This robs an effective Peter to pay for a destructive Paul.
There will always be a need for secure facilities. When a young person has been convicted of a violent or serious crime and is at risk of committing more, he or she often faces incarceration. But there is no public safety benefit to sending these youth hundreds of miles away from their families and communities to facilities that do not improve their chances of getting back on track. The state’s own data show an alarming 89 percent re-arrest rate for boys released from OCFS facilities, giving new meaning to the phrase “schools for crime.” Indeed, as Commissioner Carrion has stated, “In New York State, the juvenile justice system is broken—by any standard.”
The system’s high failure rates argue for a more balanced approach to public safety, including a continuum of programs ranging in intensity from community-based initiatives to rehabilitative secure care that effectively addresses the needs of youth currently confined in the state’s debilitating facilities.
Which brings us to the third leg of the stool—empowering counties and the city to take care of their own young people in their home communities, when appropriate. The governor’s own task force recommended such a “realignment” of state services, and with good reason—for the $346,035 it costs annually to send a young person to a state-run group home (a 46 percent increase over last year), we could send six young people to Harvard for a year. Such wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars is especially troubling when you consider that the state recently cut more than $1 billion in funding for schools.
Governor Paterson and Commissioner Carrion should be credited with having the courage to close troubled facilities that were harming children and negatively affecting public safety. But the job is only half done. Now it is time for state policy makers to get ahead of the curve and continue to close unnecessary facilities and reallocate savings to local government. This will take no small amount of political courage, but they can rest assured that, with proper funding, their partners in New York City and other local governments will continue creating programs that will improve public safety by holding youth accountable while helping them make better choices.
Vincent Schiraldi is commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation. John Mattingly is commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services.