Bloomberg Promises to Keep Young Offenders Closer to their Families

For NYC's young offenders, detention often means living nine or ten hours from their families. But what should be done with them?
Sarah Laskow | January 24th, 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As of this month, there are 648 young people in state-run detention facilities, and 349 of them — more than half — are from New York City. There are still more young people in detention across New York State, mostly in private facilities, and again, the majority of them are from New York City.

For these New York City kids, detention often means living nine, ten hours away from their families. In December 2009, a task force convened by Governor Patterson reported that while “nearly three-quarters of the youth who reside in institutional placement facilities are from the New York City metropolitan area…many of the facilities in which they are placed are located upstate — sometimes hundreds of miles away.”

It is difficult to close these upstate facilities, even as the number of young people being put into detention dwindles and they stand unused. They do provide jobs for upstate communities in need of them, and in 2006, the state passed a law mandating a one-year lead time for any facility’s closure. But in the past month, both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg have spoken out about changing of this situation. In his State of the State address, Gov. Cuomo said that this state of affairs “has to end this session.”

“For those of us who are old enough to remember Willowbrook,” the Staten Island school for mentally disabled children, exposed in the 1960s as an overcrowded, filthy facilities, “it brings back very bad memories. When we think about our current juvenile justice facilities, I believe there are echoes of what we dealt with in Willowbrook,” the governor said. And in his State of the City address last week, Mayor Bloomberg promised to work with Albany to “keep more young offenders in supervised, secure programs close to their homes and families instead of hundreds of miles away upstate.”

“We know we can do a better job of helping young offenders turn away from a life of crime, and if Albany will allow us, we will,” the Mayor said.

Neither leader has laid out a specific plan for moving forward, however, and underlying this positive rhetoric, however, is the question of whether the state or the city will have control over the incarceration of New York City’s young people. In December, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference in which he spoke about his proposal; his office has yet to release a written report on its details. The mayor’s overarching agenda, however, is to move New York City juvenile offenders into correctional programs run by the city.  Albany is, by all accounts, consumed with budget preparations, and the governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry on what specific steps Gov. Cuomo was considering to move forward on this issue.

For both Cuomo and Bloomberg, however, there are reasons beyond the well-being of the state’s young offenders to move forward on juvenile justice reform. Facilities run by the state Office of Children and Family Services are currently under close monitoring: in August 2009, the Department of Justice released a report on use of excessive force and denial of legal services, in four state-run detention facilities. In a settlement, reached last July, the state promised to modify its use of restraints, provide better mental health care, and improve incident reporting.

The system is also incredibly expensive to run: costs add up to more than $200,000 for each child in detention. Built into that price, however, is the cost of keeping open empty or half-full facilities, as well.

The state passes on a portion of those costs to the localities whose youth end up in the system. But the New York City’s law department is pushing back against the current cost-sharing plan. In November, the law department filed a suit against the state, in an attempt to force the state to recalculate its rates.

“The City should not have to pay millions because of wasteful spending by the State’s juvenile justice system,” Michael A. Cardozo, who heads the law department, said in a press release. “We should not pay for empty beds and idle workers.”

The suit is only in the beginning stages, and the state has yet to respond to the city’s initial filings. But if the city were to win, the state’s system could lose a major portion of its funding, giving the governor an additional incentive to shut down idle facilities.

There is widespread agreement, among policymakers and advocates, that young people in the juvenile justice system should be placed closer to home than they generally are now, and that the system cost too much. But juvenile justice advocates are waiting to see more detailed proposals from the Mayor’s office, before they endorse the city’s proposal. And the City Council’s Juvenile Justice Committee, chaired by Sara Gonzalez, who has been a vocal advocate on this issue, is holding a hearing this coming week on the proposal.

Meredith Wiley, New York state director for Fight Crime Invest in Kids, an organization whose members are drawn from law enforcement, prosecutors, and violence survivors, says that there are more important points at stake than whether the city or the state is responsible for the kids. “The bigger question is: What are you going to do with them?” she said.

Right now, even though the costs of running the system are currently high, detention facilities are not providing enough of the services that could benefit the young people in the detention facilities, like substance abuse and mental health counseling, advocates say. And budget cuts have only accentuated this problem.

“We need to redirect dollars from what we have been doing to what we should be doing. Instead, it’s being drained out of the system,” said Wiley.

In the last session of the state legislature, a bill was included in the Senate budget that would have created a funding stream for alternatives to detention by assuring localities that the state would shoulder some of the costs of community-based programs. It did not make it through the assembly, however, but has been reintroduced in the Senate.