State and local governments across the United States are implementing measures to reduce youth incarceration and invest more in programs that allow young people to stay connected to their homes and families. Policymakers have recognized that, by itself, incarceration is not an effective strategy for improving offender outcomes, reducing recidivism, and promoting public safety. Incarceration does not reduce and may actually increase the risk of reoffending— especially for young offenders who are sent far away from home and separated from their families for extended periods of time (Fabelo et al. 2015). Increasingly, public officials are reforming youth justice systems by relocating the bulk of their intervention resources at the local level. Many states are investing in community-based alternatives and some are closing down traditionally rural, state-operated youth correctional facilities.
In New York State during the 1990s and early 2000s, advocates and even some policymakers called for the State to redesign its youth justice system (e.g., Governor Paterson’s Task Force 2009). Lawmakers spent more than a decade implementing a set of policy reforms that promised to expand the use of community-based alternatives for young offenders. Everyone involved in these efforts shared a common goal — to create a system for justice-involved youth that would be less punitive, more rehabilitative, and more thoroughly grounded in research evidence and best practices.
In 2012, New York began a realignment effort known as Close to Home (or C2H). Two years later, many of the officials and practitioners involved C2H still described it as “promising” or “encouraging.” Few were ready to call it completely successful. Everyone interviewed for this study, however, supported the general goals of C2H and the strategies being pursued by City and State agencies. It was not clear how to judge the long-term success of the initiative, but Close to Home appeared to be a sound investment for New York State and New York City.
- The Close to Home initiative is widely perceived to be an effective reform strategy for youth justice in New York. After two years of implementation, the initiative retained strong support from State officials, City officials, youth justice practitioners, and advocates.
- The success of C2H cannot be assessed simply by tracking changes in placement numbers. The sharp decline in New York’s rate of residential placements after C2H may suggest to some that the initiative is an effective strategy, but the downward trend in placements began many years before C2H.
- Opinions still vary as to the fundamental purposes of C2H. Was it intended to reduce the overall use of residential placements, or was it an effort to localize the residential system and replace state placements with local placements?
- Some professionals involved in the design of C2H argue that it was never simply about geography (i.e. the location of placements). It was intended to establish a better and more cost-effective balance of resources across the full dispositional continuum, including the wider use of community-based, non-residential alternatives.
- For many officials, present day costs are not the most critical indicator of C2H’s success. They believe that C2H should eventually make the youth justice system more cost-effective by generating better youth outcomes and lowering crime rates.
- More than two years into the C2H initiative, New York City operates more (and perhaps better) placement facilities, but advocates worry that the full array of community alternatives remains under-utilized.
- Some advocates interviewed for this study are worried that if new C2H-funded placement facilities are of higher quality and produce better outcomes than the State’s now-closed facilities, New York City judges might be inspired to use placement more often than before.
- Other stakeholders fear that C2H may have even hindered the momentum that was building for keeping justice-involved youth safely in the community. Instead, the youth justice system in New York City may have become more preoccupied with expanding youth placements — albeit the locally-operated placements everyone prefers.
- Advocates ask a key question: “Was it ever reasonable to assume that the C2H initiative could build a high-quality placement system and simultaneously work to keep youth out of that system?”
- Nearly all stakeholders interviewed for this study agree that the planning and implementation of C2H was rushed, but they also agree that rushing was probably necessary. The C2H initiative would have likely “died on the vine” had it not moved so quickly.
- After nearly three years of experience, including a transition to a new Mayor and City administration, the Close to Home initiative appears to be established policy. All stakeholders are eager to maintain the effort, although criticisms and debates about particular strategies continue.
- It is too early to tell whether the changes introduced by C2H have truly reformed New York City’s justice system or improved public safety, but key youth justice trends in New York City are actually more positive than in other areas of New York State. On balance, Close to Home seems to be a solid investment.
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