In the 1970s, former New York governor Mario Cuomo was responsible for the largest expansion to the criminal justice system in the state’s history. Now his son wants to make major cuts to that system, in particular juvenile justice programs.
In his state of the budget address earlier this month, Cuomo proposed a reduction of juvenile beds from 1,209 to 833. He also wants to reduce the Office of Child and Family Services’ budget by $149 million and provide reimbursement incentives for local alternatives to incarceration for low and medium risk juvenile offenders.
Community-based programs are alternative ways those facing jail time can serve their sentences, usually through community service and parti. They may provide mental health services, education, and counseling.
Joanne Page is the President of the Fortune Society, an "Alternatives to Incarceration" program that works with adults and juveniles over 16 years who have a history of incarceration. She said the governor’s proposals are a “wise set of alternatives.”
“By diverting those dollars essentially what they’re saying to these localities is, ‘if you chose to lock up low risk young people we're not going to help carry the cost.’” Page said.
Cuomo wants to set aside $29 million to help fund local organizations across the state. A spokesman for the governor says most of that money will come from the savings generated by reducing current capacity in the detention centers. According to the governor’s office, approximately 50 percent of the 1,209 beds in the juvenile justice system are currently empty.
Although the Fortune Society primarily works with adult inmates, Page said most of their clients went through the juvenile justice system as well. She said that’s where they become institutionalized for incarceration.
“Youth facilities are kid prisons. They prepare kids to go on to adult prisons, and most of those kids do. So what you want to do with a young person is help them develop the life skills in the community, not the life skills that let them live in a prison.”
Casimiro Torres is an ex-convict who was in and out of juvenile centers. He agreed with Page. “Juvenile justice is the elementary, and the adult prison is the college. You’re putting them in a predatory environment with no way of developing humane, real responses.”
The governor isn’t the only politician in the state who wants to overhaul the juvenile system. In December 2010, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg called on Albany to relinquish its control over the state’s juvenile justice system, and allow New York City to have control over juveniles from the city. According to the mayor, nearly 400 New York City youth are currently in state facilities.
“We know there is a better way to help these kids get their lives back on track, while also saving taxpayers millions of dollars. We simply cannot continue to support a system that has some of the highest recidivism rates in the country,” said Bloomberg in a statement.
New York City Councilmember Sara Gonzalez heads the Juvenile Justice Committee. She says bringing these kids closer to their families is the solution to reducing recidivism.
“Sometimes a lot of these young children come from families where there financial situation doesn’t warrant that their parent can travel up there,” said Gonzalez.
A new report released last week from state comptroller Tom DiNapoli says the state needs to identify at-risk children even earlier to prevent them from entering the juvenile justice system.
‘The costs of failing to intervene early are enormous, since juvenile delinquents are at risk of becoming repeat offenders,” DiNapoli said in the report. “The cost of one career criminal has been estimated between $2.0 million and $2.7 million (2004 dollars).”
But not everyone is celebrating the governor’s initiative to redesign juvenile justice in the state. Stephen Madarasz with the Civil Service Employees Association says he agrees the juvenile justice system needs a “serious overhaul,” but the Commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, Gladys Carrion, does not have a game plan to fix the problem.
“She is a reckless and dangerous individual. Possibly the worse commissioner CSEA has dealt with in over our hundred-year history,” said Madarasz. Madarasz pointed to Carrion’s Sanctuary Model as a failed initiative.
In 2006, Carrion and the OCFS began to promote this new model, which focuses on therapy and counseling to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. Madarasz says the support the idea, but it was not initiated properly.
“We see no legitimate game plan about how you actually are going to do that and ensure there are the appropriate resources in these community based settings. They don’t have them right now. You might have a 12-15 youth and only two direct staff supervising them,” said Madarasz.
He says that could put public safety at risk.
In testimony made Wednesday, Feb. 16, Commissioner Carrion pledged her support for the governor's plan and made some proposals of her own.
"Instead of paying for unnecessary local detention, a new Supervision and Treatment services for Juveniles program is proposed to support performance-focused, community-based alternatives to placing youth in State and local facilities and to provide re-entry services critical to reducing recidivism," she testified. "The status quo is not good enough, and we cannot afford it."