CA Campaign Helps Close Juvenile Prisons

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In February, shortly after New York’s Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) announced its plan to close six juvenile facilities, the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project (JJP) launched a strategic campaign to educate the public about the closures and urge policymakers to support the agency’s plan. Correctly predicting backlash from upstate legislators who wanted to keep the facilities open for the jobs they provided in their districts, the CA sought to prevent the Legislature from restoring funding for the prisons in the state budget.

JJP’s “Empty Beds, Wasted Dollars” campaign, funded by the JEHT Foundation, focused on the plan’s good fiscal sense: the facilities are either mostly or completely empty, and each empty bed costs the state $140,000 to $200,000 per year. OCFS forecasted $16 million in annual savings to taxpayers. With state revenue shortfalls looming, the financial argument for closing the prisons was persuasive. JJP was successful in garnering media attention statewide, including editorials in the New York Times and Albany Times Union questioning the logic of keeping underutilized facilities open at the expense of taxpayers when more effective&#8212and less costly&#8212alternatives are available.

But it was never just about the money the State would save. The closures are part of a broader paradigm shift in the agency’s outlook on juvenile justice. OCFS Commissioner Gladys Carrión explained: “Instead of continuing to pour money into this broken system and confining these children to facilities hundreds of miles from their homes, OCFS has aggressively been moving toward more community based alternatives to incarceration where these children can maintain and strengthen connections with their families and the significant adults in their lives.”

The analysis that the juvenile justice system is in need of overhauling, and that investing in community alternatives is the first step, echoes reforms for which the Correctional Association and others have long advocated. A year and a half ago, before new leadership at the agency, few would have expected OFCS to take such a stance. Despite soaring recidivism rates and its disproportionate confinement of youth of color, the old OCFS was loath to acknowledge the need for change. Its administrators certainly had little interest in hearing from reform-minded groups like the CA.

But by January, OCFS’ announcement came as no surprise to the CA, which over the past year has been working closely with agency officials on a range of important juvenile justice reform issues. As the CA’s legislative mandate to monitor and report on state prisons does not extend to juvenile prisons, this degree of cooperation provides access to what has essentially been a closed system. Shutting down underutilized facilities was an important step in the agency’s ambitious redesign, and the CA fully supported the plan.

A few days before the state budget deadline, the CA brought over 50 young people and other advocates to Albany to speak directly with policymakers about the issue. During the subsequent budget negotiations, the closures became a bargaining chip between the Assembly and Senate, and after much wrangling, Governor Paterson and the Legislature restored funding for two of the facilities. While the CA strongly supported closing all six facilities, the closure of four is nevertheless an advance for advocates, for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, and for an agency attempting to remake itself.

The budget battle now over, the CA will turn to supporting the agency’s pledge to reinvest funds in community-based alternative to incarceration programs. With Carrión and OCFS still committed to improving outcomes for troubled youth and willing to collaborate with advocates, there is good reason to remain optimistic.