All of the officials and practitioners interviewed for this study believed the Close to Home initiative improved the youth justice system in New York. Most interviewees believed that Phase 2 would go even further and perhaps create a truly rehabilitative approach to youth justice. In everyone’s opinion, New York was moving in the right direction.
The first phase of Close to Home clearly helped those youth who were once held in the State’s remote, non-secure facilities. Beginning in 2012, those youth were being served in community-based programs closer to their own neighborhoods. Even those who were still in residential placements had more opportunities for family visits and they were able to maintain positive connections to their communities.
Close to Home also improved educational supports for justice-involved youth. School officials in New York City reported that the youth affected by C2H were taking and passing their Regents Exams at higher rates than before, and they were more often returning to their neighborhood schools following placement. According to one official: “they don’t leave the NYC [school] system when they get placed now, and this continuity is critical to helping them succeed when they get home.”
The stronger emphasis on contract oversight under Close to Home was also an improvement over the pre-C2H era. Providers told researchers that both ACS and OCFS played an active oversight role during the first phase of the C2H initiative. ACS and OCFS staff members were visiting facilities more often and were more familiar with program staff and clients.
As the City and State move into Phase 2 of C2H in 2015, a couple of key questions should be asked. Namely, what strategies were effective in advancing the C2H agenda, and what mistakes should be avoided? Several answers emerged during interviews for this report:
- Providers need time to prepare for new clients and new caseloads. The planning process needs to allow for reasonable start-up time, and the City and State should collaborate to support the costs of contractors during the start-up phase.
- More effort should be made to minimize the number of youth who are transferred from one setting to another in the midst of a residential stay. New placement facilities should grow with new admissions rather than transferring youth from old facilities.
- Building high-quality programs and placements is essential, but it is also important to build in controls over access to those programs and placements. Net-widening is an ever-present risk.
- The C2H initiative benefitted from the effective division of labor between City and State officials — i.e. the City assumed primary responsibility for managing and contracting for programs while the State provided oversight and regulatory review.
- Residential work in the youth justice system is difficult and challenging. Youth justice systems must recruit staff carefully and provide employees with ongoing training and professional development to ensure quality of care and to minimize turnover.
- While youth justice agencies should rely on evidence-based or evidence-informed service models whenever possible, such models do not exist for every youth and family factor that leads to crime and delinquency. Youth justice systems should include other interventions suggested by adolescent development science and preventive principles (e.g., job supports, educational mentoring, participation in the arts, sports and physical activity, and an array of other skill-based interventions).
As a reform strategy, Close to Home is not yet complete. During interviews for this study, agency officials from both the City and the State agreed with advocates that more investments were needed in community-based, non-residential alternatives. They also agreed that placement decisions would require ongoing scrutiny — even after the launch of Phase 2.
The officials most involved in C2H were clear that recent reforms were not simply about moving placements and programs from one agency to another. Transferring placements from OCFS to ACS would accomplish nothing unless the quality of youth justice improved. As Commissioner Gladys Carrión stated in 2014: “Either one of us [ACS or OCFS] is quite capable of running a really poor system. It’s not about who runs it.”
Close to Home was also not a privatization initiative. If the principal outcome of C2H was simply that private agencies began to play a larger role in youth justice, the initiative should not be considered a success.
Finally, while the officials interviewed for this study sometimes differed about the importance of budgetary concerns in the long-term, none believed the success of C2H should be judged simply in terms of short-term costs. In their view, the goal of Close to Home was to build a more effective youth justice system that provides high-quality services for youth and families in order to ensure safer communities.
Perhaps in a few years, as more outcome data become available, New Yorkers will learn that the Close to Home initiative brought real and lasting benefits to justice-involved and their communities. As of now, however, while nobody is ready to call the initiative a complete success, the general consensus is that Close to Home is a promising reform that has already improved the quality of youth justice in New York City and New York State.
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