Community Connections: The end of ATD may bode well for juvenile justice

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Most young people awaiting trial in family court are charged with low- level offenses and pose no threat to public safety. According to the Department of Juvenile Justice, 65% of detained youth are charged with non-violent crimes or probation violations. Yet every year, New York City spends millions of tax dollars to keep pre-trial youth locked in secure detention centers until they go to court.

The Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC), coordinated by the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project, has long advocated for community-based alternative-to-detention (ATD) programs, which cost far less than secure detention and benefit youth and society far more. So the Coalition was upset in January, when the New York City Department of Probation closed the city’s only ATD program, claiming an under-funded budget and overburdened facilities.

Now the Coalition is advocating that Community Connections, a comprehensive ATD program that it designed, be implemented to fill the gap.

How youth spend the time between their arrest and disposition is crucial to the outcome of their trials—and their lives. If they are detained in a secure facility before trial, they are more likely to be sentenced to a youth prison, more likely to face barriers in returning to school or work after their release, and more likely to be locked up again—in New York City, 44% are re-admitted to detention within a year.

But if youth stay in a community-based program before trial, they’re more likely to be sentenced to an alternative-to-incarceration program, which greatly reduces the chance that they’ll be re-arrested. In Chicago, 90% of young people who are released from detention to participate in community programs do not re-offend during the course of their case.

In addition, ATD programs are cost-effective. Secure detention is hugely ex- pensive, costing New York City $410 per youth per day, or almost $150,000 a year. Alternative programs cost only $42 per day.

Many cities across the country have implemented ATD programs, with excellent results. For example, Chicago cut its youth detention population in half while reducing juvenile crime. New York, by contrast, opened two new secure youth facilities in 1998, and they quickly filled.

“New York City is behind the curve on this issue,” said Mishi Faruqee, director of the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project.

Twenty-six organizations signed the Juvenile Justice Coalition’s letter opposing the demise of New York City’s ATD pro- gram and encouraging the city to adopt Community Connections, the JJC’s proposed community-based program.

Community Connections is based on successful ATD programs in Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, OR and other cities, and will reduce the use of youth detention without jeopardizing community safety.

The program will be operated by a community organization and serve youth aged 7 to 15 who have already been assigned to secure detention. The organization will monitor participants’ school attendance, provide recreational and academic after-school activities and ensure that youth attend all their court dates.

In January, Bronx Connect, a community-based youth organization, applied for a state grant to implement Community Connections. An impressive number of agencies supported the proposal, including the NYC Department of Education, Bronx Family Court, the Legal Aid Society, the Mayor’s office and the Corporation Counsel, the city agency that prosecutes delinquency cases. The Juvenile Justice Coalition expects that once the program is established in the Bronx, it will expand to every borough.

“Community Connections is a significant opportunity for New York City to embrace juvenile detention reform,” said Faruqee. “We urge the city to use this chance to make a difference in young people’s lives.”

Money Talks

One reason New York City has been reluctant to implement alternative-to-detention programs is that half of the exorbitant cost of incarcerating youth is paid for by New York State. Conversely, the city receives very little state money for ATD programs; even though they are far more economical, the city has less financial incentive to create them.

That’s why the Juvenile Justice Coalition has developed and proposed Redirect New York, a plan in which the state will reimburse cities for ATD programs—and at a higher rate than detention. Similar incentive programs have been very effective in other states: Ohio, for example, reduced its youth detention population by 40% in 10 years. Several legislators have expressed their support for Redirect New York, and the Coalition expects that it will soon be introduced to the legislature as a bill.