Juvenile Justice Project Calls on City to Close the Notorious Spofford Youth Jail

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Last year, the Juvenile Justice Project worked with Justice 4 Youth, a city-wide coalition of youth groups, to stop New York City from adding 200 beds to its juvenile detention system. Largely in response to the coalition’s No More Youth Jails! campaign, the city cancelled its $65 million expansion plan and removed $53 million from the NYC Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) capital budget.

This victory was only the first step in the Project’s ongoing effort to promote policies that will reduce the use of youth incarceration in New York City and redirect juvenile justice resources to prevention, aftercare, and alternatives to detention. Currently, the city’s detention policies reflect a stark social imbalance in our city. While African Americans and Latinos make up less than two-thirds of the city’s youth population, they comprise 95% of the young people confined at the city’s three youth jails. In addition, the majority of youth in detention facilities come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. While the city spends about $9800 per year to educate a child in its public schools, it spends almost $131,000 a year to incarcerate a child in its juvenile detention centers.

Given the significant drop in the youth detention population in recent years, the city now has an extraordinary opportunity to restructure its detention system, reduce its jail capacity and promote alternatives to detention. One of the most important steps that the city can take to improve its juvenile justice system is to close Spofford (aka Bridges), a secure detention center located in the Hunts Point neighborhood in the Bronx.

Because DJJ’s three juvenile detention centers are all operating well below capacity, the city can close Spofford and consolidate its secure detention population in the two other secure centers – Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizon in the Bronx. Closing Spofford would save the city an estimated $14 million a year, which in turn could be re-invested in alternatives to detention and other community-based programs that would ensure the continued decline in the city’s youth detention population.

Notably, the city has a longstanding commitment to permanently close Spofford, which has a history of poor conditions and brutality against children. In 1998, the city opened its two new youth detention facilities with the claim that they would replace Spofford. However, the city reneged on this promise and decided instead to spend $8 million to renovate Spofford. This year, DJJ has proposed undertaking a second renovation of the facility with an estimated cost of over $7 million. Former city officials have told us that no amount of capital improvement and renovation could make Spofford a good place to house children.

The Juvenile Justice Project is engaged in several activities to publicize the need to shut down Spofford and invest in alternatives to detention. Malikah Kelly, the Project’s youth organizer, has been interviewing young people who have been incarcerated at Spofford and is preparing a report about their experiences. Working with young people in the Justice 4 Youth Coalition, the Project is organizing a series of public forums to educate communities about Spofford. Justice 4 Youth members are also reaching out to elected officials and policy makers and will testify at the City Council hearings on the DJJ budget in the spring. Finally, Project staff has conducted site visits to alternative to detention programs and is conducting research on how the city can expand community-based options for court-involved youth. The Juvenile Justice Project carries out this integrated advocacy effort in support of its determined commitment to reduce the number of youth who needlessly enter the city’s youth jails.