Unlocking Kids


New York City has begun to seriously re-think its juvenile detention policies, but it will take time for major changes to happen.

The city of New York operates a juvenile detention system, a sort of baby Rikers’ Island, where young people awaiting disposition of their family court cases are held. Like a city jail, the young people held in these facilities have not been found guilty of any crime. They are simply awaiting trial.

The Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Juvenile Justice, which administer the facilities, don’t like to call them jails, or refer to the youth in them as incarcerated or label the court hearings for the children “trials.” There is a softer vocabulary for juvenile justice: youth are held in secure detention, remanded and awaiting disposition.

But for the few hundred New York City teenagers who sleep behind barbed wire in the locked facilities, wear uniforms and have their movements monitored, it feels like jail, and the adults seem like corrections officers.

Young people go into the facilities frightened and come out tough. In many neighborhoods, a stay in a juvenile facility is the first step on the road to long-term incarceration. It can be like prep school for adult crime.

But the majority of teenagers in the city’s three secure detention facilities aren’t violent criminals – or even accused of terribly serious crimes. Most were caught writing graffiti, jumping turnstiles or shoplifting. Some got in a fight with their parents and someone dialed 9-1-1. Some are in custody because they were in school yard fights.

“These are things that you can’t not address, but that don’t in and of themselves present a major risk to public safety,” said Laurence Busching, executive deputy commissioner of the division of youth and family justice at the ACS. “For the kids who can safely be managed in the community, we want to do that.”

Responding to low crime rates and a reform movement in approaches to juvenile crime, the city’s juvenile justice apparatus is in the midst of a major reassessment of how it responds to teenage law breakers. It aims to dramatically reduce the number of young people held in secure detention by offering counseling, intense supervision and supportive services in their homes to most young people accused of crimes.

Rehabilitation over punishment

Only those deemed the most dangerous will be subject to pre-trial detention. The Department of Juvenile Justice, which is in the process of merging with the Administration for Children’s Services, recently released a plan that emphasizes rehabilitation over punitive measures for young people accused of delinquency and minor crimes, and sets thresholds for achieving the switchover. The thinking is simple: treat youthful offenders like kids in trouble, not junior criminals.

“Over the last five years there has been a tremendous amount of work done on juvenile justice reform,” Busching said in an interview. “Community placements allow us to save money and are better for the kids.”

Too often, Busching said, under the current system, youth end up in prison-like facilities simply because no one could pick them up from the police station, or less restrictive emergency care could not be found. But being locked up is traumatizing. It also weakens family and community ties, disrupts school and often exposes young people who are accused of minor crimes to more serious offenders, he added, noting that the shift in focus will attempt to offer rehabilitative services in kids’ own neighborhoods.

If you close it, they won't come

Relying on a sort of reverse “Field of Dreams” logic – if you close it, they won’t come – the department hopes to shutter Bridges Juvenile Center, a secure facility in the Bronx where approximately 130 young people are held. Commonly referred to as Spofford, the facility has been a target of frustration for years. Neighbors in Hunts Point, where the facility is located, have long campaigned for its closure and for the transformation of the building into a community center or a facility that could generate jobs.

“We’ve long said there should be a pool, a community facility, right in the heart of the neighborhood,” said Miquela Craytor, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx. “A school or something that could be used 24 hours would be a really good way to use to the space,” added Busching said.

ACS/DJJ intends to close Bridges by this fall. The New York City Council will need to approve the closure. The council must also formally approve the merge of ACS and DJJ before the two agencies can be fully integrated.

That merger was announced in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address in January, and the two agencies have been operating in concert since March. But their budgets are still separate and everything from purchasing to personnel issues is gerry-rigged while the agencies await council-initiated changes to the city charter, ACS’ Commissioner John Mattingly told the council.

Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, who represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the council’s juvenile justice committee said at a committee hearing late last month that she supports both the merger and de-emphasizing secure detention. But she warned that changes to city operations take time.

“The city and the council especially are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately it doesn’t always happen when we want it to happen. It will happen sooner than later, how’s that,” she said. Mattingly pleaded with the council to approve the merger before adopting a budget for the coming year. It didn’t happen.

At the hearing, ACS Commissioner John Mattingly told the council’s juvenile justice committee that closing Bridges first required decreasing the number of youth in secure detention, so that even without Bridges’ 150 beds, there would be space for the few young people who truly do require secure detention. He pointed to reforms that have already reduced the number of youth sent to Bridges or to Horizon or Cross Roads, its partner facilities.

“Our reform efforts have included the creation of a risk assessment instrument, which provides stakeholders with information about the risk level of youth, to inform detention decisions,” he said in prepared testimony.

Alternatives to detention

Only 13 percent of youth in the ACS/DJJ system are considered a high risk for recidivism and flight. The department also helped establish a “continuum of community-based alternatives-to-detention and placements for juveniles”, Mattingly said.

It is those alternative-to-detention placements upon which ACS and DJJ will rely to help lower the population at secure facilities.

There are currently an average of 40 alternative-to-detention positions in each borough, Busching told the committee. They include after school and summer recreational programs, community monitoring of the youth and intensive supervision from the department of probation, which often involves curfews and nightly check-ins to keep the young person out of trouble. But the number of slots needs to increase if all the kids at Bridges are going to get reassigned.

And some advocates worry that the city council and ACS/DJJ won’t act quickly enough. Closing Bridges, then called Spofford, has been on the agenda for a generation. The first commission to consider shutting Spofford was convened in 1978.

Avery Irons, director of Youth Justice Programs for Children’s Defense Fund-NY, praised ACS and DJJ for adopting progressive, child-centered reforms. But she voiced frustration as well. “There are not that many kids in there. If they are really committed to closing it, they can get them reassigned quickly. We need to make sure this actually happens. You can talk about it forever.”

Eileen Markey is an urban affairs and public policy reporter who covers New York City. She was a John Jay/HF Guggenheim Fellow in 2010.

Photo by publik16 via Flickr.

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