It seems unthinkable that we might support a juvenile correctional system that harms youth in the interest of preserving a few jobs. However, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo claimed that this is true during his recent State of the State address. Governor Cuomo pleaded that we shouldn't "put other people in prison to give some people jobs." He cited New York State statistics that the 25 juvenile detention centers in the state, which house over 600 people between the ages of 7 and 15, cost more than $200,000 per juvenile per year. From these kids, 9 out of 10 will end up back in juvenile detention or prison, 46% of which will be readmitted the same year. These centers are highly ineffective, so why would we continue to place the youth of New York in them?
Truth be told, jobs held by public employees are in danger. Much of what Governor Cuomo said was highly unpopular with the Civil Service Employees Association, a union that protects the jobs of public employees. A shift in focus from detention centers to community programs has led to the closing of 11 detention centers and five group homes. Since 2007, 411 staff positions have been cut, and there are currently plans for cutting another 251 positions this year. It is difficult to see these jobs go, especially in such financially difficult times.
But the results for young people in alternative programs speak for themselves. Among adults and children, diversion and community-based programs tend to be far more effective. The Center for Community Alternatives has a community diversion program that lasts for six months, serving 500 juvenile offenders at a cost of $10,000 per year for each offender. These costs are significantly lower than those of traditional detention. The results are even more astounding: 75% of those who enter the program complete it and only 15% are arrested again. Further statistics presented by the Correctional Association of New York found that utilizing community partners to develop alternative-to-detention programs costs about $15,000 per youth per year. These programs are much less expensive and present the possibility of much greater success.
Critics of a shift to community-based alternative programs cite cases where there is little to no success or point to those who are dangerous, such as the two teen boys who bludgeoned their supervisor, Renee Greco, to death. However, very few of the kids placed in juvenile detention are likely to be dangerous. Statistics from the Correctional Association of New York found that 92% of youth entering secure detention facilities are classified as juvenile delinquents, whereas only 8% are classified as juvenile offenders. (A juvenile delinquent is a person between the ages of 7 and 15 charged with an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult; a juvenile offender is a person between the ages of 13 and 15 charged with committing a more serious crime and tried in adult criminal court.)
Furthermore, kids are being sent to these detention facilities even when they are not a threat to the community. Judges often make this decision when they don't believe there is a responsible adult at home or that they will receive adequate treatment for drug or mental heath issues. In these cases, the results can be detrimental to the juvenile and his community. According to JoAnne Page, President of the Fortune Society, the incarceration of a troubled kid with other even more troubled or dangerous kids can cause more harm than good. Studies with adult offenders show that one fourth of non-violent offenders are later convicted of a violent offense, demonstrating that time spent in prison may increase violent behavior, not lessen it.
While it is true that community-based diversion programs reduce the need for the public employees who staff juvenile detention centers, it also presents the ability to create new, positive positions. By enabling the state to make major financial savings, these funds could be used to stimulate the economy and create positions that do not negatively affect the youth of New York. Jobs are also created in the alternative centers. Community based programs also lessen the distance that a youth is displaced from his home, allowing for a more smooth transition back into society. And lastly, by surrounding children with strong community role models rather than other troubled kids, we can prevent the increase in violent behavior that tends to occur in prison. By utilizing communities' resources, we can effectively lower the recidivism rate as well as the immense price tag of the New York State juvenile detention centers.
Ashley McCollum is junior at Mount Holyoke College and is researching correction reform in her local county jails.