The Costs of Juvenile “Justice”

In November 2006, Darryl Thompson, a 15-year-old boy, died in restraints after being pinned to the floor in the Tryon Boys Residential Center in New York.  Such force was used after Darryl repeatedly asked for recreation time.  Last August, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated and discovered that the state uses “excessive force on youths in custody,” and will sue the state if reform does not happen.  Likewise, the Gossett juvenile prison in upstate New York is often referred to as “Rug Burn City, a reference to the injuries [youths] sustained when guards . . . . pinned young offenders face down on the carpeted floor.”

In December 2009, just weeks after a state-appointed task force said that “use of force and lack of mental health care” are problems for the 1,600 children held in New York’s juvenile facilities, the Legal Aid Society sued the state Office of Children and Family Services on behalf of youths in custody.  While Gov. David Patterson announced plans to close two of the offending facilities named by the Justice Department, Tamara Steckler, a Legal Aid Society attorney, recognized the need for quick reform.  “At this point, it’s pretty clear that the change needs to happen, it needs to be pervasive and it needs to happen now,” Ms. Steckler stated earlier this year.

Several organizations, such as the Legal Aid Society, represent juvenile clients in class-action litigation, and work on legislative and administrative advocacy. Recently, in response to the U.S. DOJ findings (as discussed above), Legal Aid filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit against the New York State Office of Children and Family Services arguing that children confined in residential centers are subjected to unconstitutional and excessive force and are deprived of legally-required mental health services.  The Society works towards a number of other reforms and works to maintain the right to education, continuous medical and mental health treatment in detention, and the right to be in the least restrictive setting for juvenile delinquents.

However, one of biggest problems standing in the way of actually implementing any of the reforms being discussed throughout the state is the financial resources that are wasted on juvenile facilities.  The annual cost of keeping a delinquent confined is around $220,000.  This annual cost is striking and, at the very least, disturbing to me.  This amount, which houses a juvenile delinquent who is likely to commit another crime within a short period of time without the proper rehabilitative treatment, is more than enough to cover my annual expenses – including law school tuition.  This leads me to wonder exactly what the money is being spent on, if not some sort of stellar education and treatment programs.

Granted, this amount has sky-rocketed due to shipping off minors to facilities far from their homes, leaving most of the state’s 25 juvenile facilities half-empty, and maintaining staff at facilities that are currently closed.  It is obvious that huge cut backs must be made to the budgets of such facilities and even perhaps consolidation must take place if any money will be available to put towards reform.

The New York State juvenile justice system has come under a lot of heat the past several years.  It has led to an investigation by the DOJ, it has been exposed that money and resources are being wasted, and children’s lives are being played with as their rights are being violated.  How to reform the system is certainly a question we all need to ask.  But perhaps the deeper question that should worry us is: what exactly have we been funding all this time and what are we, going forward, willing to spend our money on?

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