The Legal Aid Society Praises Governor's Plan To Place Youth Closer To Home

Under an initiative proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2012-2013 State budget, youth from New York City would no longer be placed in upstate  state-run non-secure and limited-secure facilities, but would be  closer to home in City agencies where they would receive services and be able to see family members on a regular basis.

Tamara A. Steckler, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice of The Legal Aid Society, told the New York Law Journal that the Governor's plan "is going to be great for this population of kids."  She said that the current system does not "help our clients" or foster re-entry.  She praised the City through Administration for Children Services and its Probation Department with building "a robust continuum of services" for juveniles and said that the current planning process has been "very collaborative."

The New York Law Journal
Plan for Juvenile Delinquents Would Place Them Close to Home
By Jeff Storey

Juvenile delinquents from New York City who are now placed by Family Court in facilities far away from their loved ones and communities would be housed and receive services "close to home" under an initiative proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo as part of the 2012-13 budget he unveiled last week.For the specific provision, see Section G of the proposed budget.The proposal would shift jurisdiction for delinquents housed in state-run non-secure and limited-secure facilities and in privately run programs—currently about 350 youths—to city agencies, a change long sought by juvenile justice reform agencies."We want kids to be placed close to home where their parents can take a subway to participate in their rehabilitation instead of facing the daunting proposition of traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles, generally a bus ride, which is mostly impossible for the parents of our young people," Ronald E. Richter, commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, said in an interview.

Mr. Richter said the current system imposes a separation of seven or eight months between 14 and 15 year olds and their parents, "generally their mothers." He added that the fraying of family and community ties was "probably the reason we have the 81 percent recidivism rate we have in the state juvenile justice system."

According to budget documents, the governor's initiative "will reform juvenile justice services by closing costly state facilities and providing more appropriate placements and services to youth from New York City within New York City-based facilities."

The city-administered programs would replace 324 beds and after-care slots run by the state Office of Children and Family Services. City youths residing in non-secure facilities would be shifted in 2012-13 and those in limited-secure facilities would be moved in 2013-14. The city would receive state aid to operate the new system.

"We believe that the financing is adequate to do what we are attempting to do, first and foremost to deliver services to young people where they come from," Mr. Richter said.

City officials acknowledge that at least some youths would continued to be confined, albeit in the city rather than upstate. But they express hope that many more could be served in the community while living at home.

The effort "is going to give young people and their families an opportunity for a different kind of rehabilitation, namely one that includes family participation in a very different way," Mr. Richter said.

Youths who commit serious crimes still could be sent to state-run secure centers, but residents of those facilities are principally juvenile offenders who are tried in adult courts.

In 2009, 905 of the 1,437 juvenile delinquents placed with the state were from the city.

The state would save money by the shift in Family Court placements from state to city-run facilities, but Morris Peters, a spokesman for the Division of the Budget, said its principal rationale was that the city was "better suited" to serve its juvenile population.

The program still must be adopted by the Legislature, where members sometimes bridle at closing facilities staffed by their constituents. Also, the city must prepare a plan and hold public hearings before going ahead.

However, city and state officials have been discussing the proposal for some time.

"I think they're very optimistic and we're very optimistic," said Mr. Richter. He added that his agency also has contacted nonprofit groups that would have "a chance to provide services to a population that is interesting and challenging."

Mr. Peters predicted that the transition would be "seamless."

Theresa Steckler, head of the Legal Aid Society's juvenile rights practice, said the governor's initiative "is going to be great for this population of kids."

Ms. Steckler, whose agency has a suit pending against the state said the current system does not "help our clients" or foster re-entry. For example, school credits earned at state facilities cannot be transferred to the city school system, an obstacle that would be eliminated by having the facilities in the city.

Ms. Steckler credited the city through ACS and its Probation Department with building "a robust continuum of services" for juveniles and said that the current planning process has been "very collaborative."

ACS provided intensive home-based services to approximately 235 youths in 2010 through its Juvenile Justice Initiative, while Probation served about 150 in its Esperanza program.

Ms. Steckler also said that serving the youths in the city would "open the door" to more effective post-placement legal representation by eliminating the need to send attorneys to upstate facilities, sometimes for several days at a time.

Mr. Richter recalled his own experience as a Legal Aid attorney.

"When you really think you have a chance of getting probation for a client and the kid gets placed, you have the kid on one side of you and the kid's mother on the other side and the kid starts crying because he's going to have to hug his mother goodbye and it's going to be a goodbye for months and months and months, and the kid turns into a baby," he said.

That the governor's proposal can "make the distance vanish" shows "what a change in the law can do for families," he added.