Monday, January 12, 2009

Paterson Budget Properly Reduces Juvenile Detention Facilities and Improves Safety in Manhattan

We are grateful to Charisa Smith for serving as our guest blogger for this week's Manhattan Viewpoint. She currently serves as the Director of the Juvenile Justice Project of the Correctional Association of New York.
Her mini-bio appears after the blog entry.

With New York State in a fiscal crisis, the closure of several underused juvenile incarceration facilities would generate much needed savings. For example, the Great Valley facility in upstate New York costs $1.7 million to keep open. This facility has no residents, employs less than 30 individuals. It is part of an ineffective juvenile prison system that includes as many as 500 empty beds.

The Governor's budget proposes closing six juvenile jail facilities — including Great Valley — and three evening reporting centers, while two residential centers would be downsized. The Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) spends more than $170 million to operate its juvenile placement facilities. The agency estimates the downsizing of its facilities will result in $12 million in savings in 2009-10 and $14 million in 2010-11.
Why should the state spend between $150,000 and $200,000 to incarcerate a child for one year when it would cost only $12,000 per year to send a child to a community-based alternative program that would vastly improve outcomes for both the child and society at large?

Creating smaller, rehabilitation-oriented, community-based facilities for court-involved youth can be coined as "right-sizing" the juvenile justice system. Paterson's plan to continue right-sizing the system can significantly improve services for children and reduce the number of youth who are unnecessarily incarcerated.

Incarcerating fewer children will actually make for a safer New York. A 1999 OCFS study found that 81 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls released from OCFS custody were rearrested within 36 months.

Yet New York City's Administration for Children's Services' Juvenile Justice Initiative diverts foster youth who are placement-bound as a result of juvenile delinquency findings, and reports that fewer than 35 percent of participating youth have been rearrested or violated probation. Other alternative to incarceration programs boast recidivism rates as low as 20 percent. Further, in his State of the State Address on January 7th, Governor Paterson noted that “. . . crime in New York has decreased for 17 consecutive years. Today, New York is the safest large state, and the fourth-safest state overall, in the entire nation.”

New York State cannot stop at closing juvenile jails. A commitment to reinvesting public money saved from right-sizing into much less costly alternatives to incarceration and detention, and other community programs, is integral to New York's well-being. Government officials must have the foresight to recognize that community-based alternatives are the key to saving taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on government benefit programs, more incarceration, and law enforcement in the future.

These alternatives help turn troubled youth into productive citizens and restore hope to impoverished communities. Further, alternative programs better prepare children to reintegrate into society by providing access to services that include mental health and medical care; evidence-based, family-focused programs that have proven to reduce youth crime; substance abuse treatment; youth development and employment programs; and special education services.

Proponents of juvenile facility closures can anticipate opposition from public employees' unions, some community members and certain legislators who voice concerns about job losses. OCFS has publicly stated its intention to help staff from the affected facilities secure positions at other facilities or other state agencies. Further, in a time in which all sectors are cutting positions, keeping facilities open that are underutilized and fundamentally unhealthy for youth to save jobs becomes harder and harder to defend.

Paterson's plan to reduce juvenile facility capacity deserves broad-based support. So do additional community resources that would provide youth with needed support services to enable them to become law-abiding citizens. In times like these, the New York State must implement and enhance programmatic remedies that save money, enhance public safety and reform our juvenile justice system.

Charisa Smith is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School. She has worked in the juvenile justice field for six years and currently directs the Juvenile Justice Project of the Correctional Association of New York. Ms. Smith co-directed Yale’s Legislative Advocacy Clinic. With her deep devotion to public service, Ms. Smith has worked for two human rights organizations in Latin America, a New Jersey Assemblywoman, U.S. Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the Covenant House Youth Advocacy Center, the Youth Law Center, and a New Jersey Superior Court Judge.

Most recently, prior to joining the Correctional Association, Ms. Smith was part of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program through an Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Fellowship. There, she spent two years conducting re-entry advocacy for juveniles in Virginia. Ms. Smith is a licensed attorney in New York, New Jersey and Virginia.


  1. True, just jailing a juvenile is not enough to help that troubled youth. Putting them in a program that would be productive and help them become a better citizen should be a better alternative.

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