A System in Turmoil
City and State reforms were yielding positive and encouraging results even before the launch of Close to Home — aided by the national decline in youth crime. Rates of serious youth crime today are half what they were in the mid-1990s (Butts and Evans 2014). There were many competing explanations. Youth growing up in the 1980s and 90s may have begun to reject the lifestyle they came to associate with drug use and criminal activity as they observed older siblings and friends getting arrested. The declining size of the youth population may have contributed to the reduction, or perhaps the many changes associated with digital communications and social media led youth to pursue fewer illegal activities. One always-popular explanation is that growth in the use of incarceration after 1980 increased the deterrent effect of the justice system overall. Most careful research, however, suggests that rising incarceration alone explains only a small portion of the crime decline.
Regardless of the causes, however, the falling rate of serious youth crime was associated with a declining demand for placements. The number of New York City youth coming into the justice system dropped sharply in the years leading up to C2H. Between 2006 and 2012, juvenile arrests for major felonies in New York City dipped 27 percent (ACS 2013a) and the average daily population in detention dropped 29 percent (City of New York 2010; 2012). From 2006 to 2011, the number of youth placed in OCFS custody statewide plummeted 47 percent (Division of Criminal Justice Services 2012). New York City placements dropped by two-thirds from 2005 to 2012, beginning seven years before the launch of the C2H initiative (ACS 2013a).
These trends encouraged the dramatic changes at OCFS. Within a year of being appointed OCFS Commissioner, Gladys Carrión shifted resources away from the State’s residential facilities and into community alternatives. From October 2007 to September 2013, the State closed 23 youth facilities and reduced capacity in others. Overall, OCFS reduced its residential capacity by more than 1,000 beds.
Yet, problems continued to plague the youth justice system. In 2007, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into conditions in several of the State’s residential facilities for young offenders. The findings of the investigation were delivered to the Governor’s office in August 2009. The DOJ charged that treatment services for youth in State-run facilities were inadequate and that conditions were often abusive.
According to the DOJ findings letter (2009: p. 5) sent to the Governor, the federal investigation found that:
1) staff resort quickly to a high degree of force that is disproportionate to the level of the youth’s infraction; and 2) the technique employed to restrain a youth results in an excessive number of injuries. We also found that investigations into uses of force and restraints were inadequate and that, in many instances, OCFS failed to hold staff accountable for gross violations of OCFS policy on the use of force and restraints.
According to DOJ,
[The] staff at the facilities routinely used uncontrolled, unsafe applications of force, departing both from generally accepted standards and OCFS policy. Anything from sneaking an extra cookie to initiating a fist fight may result in a full prone restraint with handcuffs. This one-size-fits-all control approach has not surprisingly led to an alarming number of serious injuries to youth, including concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth, and spiral fractures.
After the release of the DOJ report, Commissioner Carrión met with New York’s family court judges and recommended that they refrain from sending any more youths to OCFS unless the youth posed significant risks to public safety. In October 2009, court administrators sent a similar memorandum to judges encouraging them to refer youth to community resources instead of sending them to placement (Storey 2010).
Meanwhile, then-Governor David Paterson launched the Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice. The task force released its report in December 2009. The report recommended further drastic decreases in the use of residential placements for youth, as well as the creation of a comprehensive menu of alternatives to placement and stronger reentry programs.
The State also faced civil litigation. In December 2009, the non-profit Legal Aid Society filed a class action suit against OCFS. The suit alleged ongoing civil rights violations and argued that OCFS facilities deprived youth of essential mental health services and that staff used unconstitutional and excessive force to control youth (Storey 2010). The lawsuit was eventually settled with OCFS consenting to significant policy changes. More than a dozen individual plaintiffs received substantial settlements and the lawyers who brought the case claimed $1 million in fees.
The pressures continued to mount. In 2010, newly elected Governor Andrew Cuomo visited OCFS’s Tryon Residential Center, a limited secure facility that OCFS had scheduled for closure. The Governor saw a fully staffed but empty campus, as OCFS was legislatively required to continue staffing the facility during the closure process. The visit was covered heavily by statewide media and became a symbol of fiscal waste and negligence in the State system. The following year, the State agreed to a $3.5 million settlement in a five-year-old lawsuit centering on the negligent death of a 15-year-old at Tryon.
Meanwhile, the number of City youth placed with OCFS dropped 62 percent between 2002 and 2011, causing daily costs per youth to swell 150 percent (Bermudez and Ferrante 2012). With the public increasingly aware of the staggering price tag associated with the State’s faltering system of residential facilities, New York City officials were emboldened to act. The logical next step was for the City to assume full responsibility for its own youth and to keep them out of expensive facilities located hours away from their homes and families.
In January 2011, Laurence Busching, then Executive Commissioner of the Division of Youth and Family Justice at ACS, and Vincent Schiraldi, then Commissioner of DOP testified before the New York City Council on the need for City officials to act. They pointed out that under the existing policy structure, New York City paid $17 million more in 2010 than it did in 2002 for its share of an increasingly unnecessary State custody system. The financial drain would only worsen and render the City unable to invest in creating a new and much-needed system to serve its own youth.
Youth advocacy groups were another critical part of the story. Groups like the Correctional Association of New York warned that current practices disconnected youth from their families and returned them to their home communities worse than they were before placement. The advocates placed special emphasis on the harm of educational disruptions during placement. While youth always had the opportunity to earn credits during placement, the credits did not always count toward their academic progress when they came home, causing at-risk and disconnected youth to fall behind or to withdraw entirely from school (Bloomberg 2012).
In short, an array of factors combined to create the perfect conditions for reform. The State faced serious fiscal, administrative, and legal pressures. Upstate secure facilities were seen to be a waste of resources that sometimes caused serious harm to young people. The juvenile defense bar and youth advocacy community were making frequent calls for fundamental reform. Meanwhile, the national youth crime decline was lowering the temperature on all crime policy debates.
The City had been tinkering with procedural and structural reforms for more than a decade. By 2012 it seemed that lawmakers might be able to do the right thing. In this case, the right thing was to dismantle a system that relied on expensive facilities in upstate New York and to create a locally operated system with better access to alternative programs and — in cases where youth did have to be removed from their homes — placements that were closer to their families and neighborhoods in New York City.
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