Crisis in the Juvenile Prisons

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Just three months after a federal investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that excessive force was routinely used at four New York youth detention facilities&#8212resulting in children suffering from broken bones, knocked-out teeth, concussions, and other serious injuries&#8212Governor Paterson’s Task Force on Transforming Juvenile Justice has released its own report shining more light on the state’s badly broken system. According to the Task Force&#8212commissioned in 2008, and led by Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice&#8212the problems uncovered by DOJ at the four prisons persist across the state’s 28 juvenile facilities.

CA Executive Director Robert Gangi, a member of the 32 person panel that published the Task Force’s report, is all too familiar with the myriad inequalities plaguing the state’s juvenile justice system. The reports decried pervasive racial disparities: while children of color make up less than half of New York State’s total youth population, black and Latino children account for over 95% of youth in city detention and over 86% of youth in state facilities. “An effective way for the state to address the system’s deeply entrenched issues of overincarceration and racial disparity is to shut down underutilized facilities for youth,” says Gangi.

The Task Force also included in its ranks several long-time members of the CA-led Juvenile Justice Coalition (JJC). The report’s recommendations echo many proposals the JJC has advocated for, including diverting youth from jail and replacing many upstate facilities with smaller, closer-to-home placements and community-based alternatives to incarceration.

“Diverting youth to proven alternative programs that reduce recidivism and improve children’s life outcomes not only makes perfect sense from a child development perspective, it makes sound fiscal sense for our state,” says DeAvery Irons, Acting Director of the CA’s Juvenile Justice Project. New York&#8212currently facing a budget deficit of $10 billion over the next two years&#8212spends $210,000 to incarcerate a child for one year; in comparison, alternative programs cost between $5,000 and $15,000 per year.

The Task Force’s report urges the state to adopt measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children in its custody. The document calls for a system of oversight to prevent and deal with frequent reports of excessive use of physical force, and the expansion of psychological and drug abuse counseling. According to the Task Force, only 55 psychologists and clinical social workers are assigned to work at the New York State prisons that house youth.

The Juvenile Justice Project will continue to promote its aggressive reform agenda. In the months ahead, the Project will organize an Advocacy Day in Albany, complete a substantive policy report, and reach out to editorial boards, media outlets, state officials, and the general public to gain support for an array of critical juvenile justice reform measures.

The findings of DOJ and the Task Force have already encouraged some state leaders to take immediate action to address blatant disparities in the system. Governor Paterson’s 2010-2011 budget, released in late January, calls for the consolidation and downsizing of four juvenile facilities&#8212including the notorious Tryon Juvenile Center, where, according to the DOJ report, staff mistreatment of youth is especially commonplace&#8212and also allocates $18.2 million to increase staff-to-youth ratios in the facilities and improve medical and mental health services.