On December 21st, 2010, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan to overhaul the New York State juvenile justice system. The proposal calls for the closure of juvenile residential facilities operated by the State’s Office of Children and Family Services (“OCFS”) or the transfer of such facilities to the control of local counties. While the Mayor’s plan has received support from the City Council as well as from advocates and practitioners involved in the New York City juvenile justice system, it is not clear how the proposal will be viewed in counties outside of New York City. Critics of the Mayor’s proposal argue that it fails to address the question of how counties will handle dangerous youths who have committed serious crimes such as assault, robbery, homicide and sex offenses.
The Mayor’s announcement comes a year after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in which it found that New York State had violated the constitutional rights of youth in four of its juvenile placement facilities by using excessive force, having inadequate mental health services and inappropriately using restraints. As pointed out in the press release announcing the Mayor proposal, New York State’s juvenile justice system has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. Eighty-one percent of males released from the system are rearrested within three years.
The Mayor’s plan advocates for a “community based approach” to the juvenile justice system, opposed to the current system which often places youth in residential facilities far from their families. In a 2009 report to New York Governor Paterson, the Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice recommended a shift towards community-based services. The Task Force argued that institutional placement should be reserved for only those youth who pose a significant risk to public safety.
Under the Mayor’s plan, the City would offer a “graduated continuum of supervision, including residential programs for high-risk kids.” While the Mayor’s plan does not give details on where these residential programs would be housed, the City does currently operate three secure residential “detention” facilities where youths involved in the juvenile justice system may be placed by the City prior to the adjudication of their case.
According to a report issued by OCFS, as of September 30th, 2010, there were 2,081 youths placed in the custody of OCFS. Eight hundred and eighteen of them came from counties outside of New York City. Thrity percent of the youths from outside of New York City were placed in facilities designated as either “secure” or “limited secure.” Only six counties outside of New York City (Albany, Erie, Monroe, Nassau, Onondaga & Westchester) have secure detention facilities for youth. Dutchess and Suffolk Counties have secure holdover facilities which are used for short term detentions only. Most of the remaining counties have placed some youths into “secure” or “limited secure” OCFS facilities.
New York City and other counties around the state have shown that community-based alternatives to residential placement are a cost effective way of reducing juvenile delinquency. But before the Mayor’s plan can be seriously considered by the State’s legislature the issue of how the counties outside of New York City will handle dangerous youths must be addressed. Where will counties which lack secure residential facilities place these youth? Do the counties which have secure detention facilities have the capacity needed to retain youths after they have been sentenced by the courts? Will counties without adequate facilities for these youths have to contract with other counties? These questions must be answered to the satisfaction of all New Yorkers before the legislature moves forward on the mayor’s proposal.