Forum Seeks Juvenile Justice System Reform
The Close to Home Community Forum, a panel traveling the city to inform the public about New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, came to Queens on March 14, speaking to and taking many inquiries from an audience at the Queens Educational Opportunity Center on Archer Avenue in Jamaica.
The basic belief that the governor and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg share is that many of those young people in the city who are said to be “at risk” of falling into unwise or criminal conduct, and do indeed fall, should be delivered from the current system of incarceration in institutions often hundreds of miles away from the city. When they are forcibly isolated from relatives and what is likely to have been the only community they have ever known, the experience can be brutal and can worsen their social condition, as demonstrated by high recidivism or re-arrest rates, said to be as high as 75 percent in a three- to four-year period, once they are released and sent back to their old neighborhoods. Cuomo and Bloomberg would like if youth sent into the system by the city’s Family Court can be rehabilitated near their next of kin and within their neighborhoods, even when that entails confinement.
The panel had conducted its first forum the night before, at the Van Dyke Community Center in Brooklyn, and on this second night was visiting the borough with the greatest number of youths in the juvenile justice system, according to the lead member of the panel, Ronald E. Richter, commissioner of the city Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), who had been a Family Court judge for three years before becoming commissioner last year. Also on the panel were Department of Youth and Family Justice Executive Deputy Commissioner Laurence Busching; Nathalie Campbell and Oliver Pu-Folkes of ACS; Ana Bermudez of the city Department of Probation, and Timothy Lisante of the city Department of Education.
The current system puts incarcerated youth under the aegis of the state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which entails transfer of detainees to upstate facilities. Cuomo wants kids out of OCFS and closer to home, where they can be moved to either non-secure placement for those deemed low risk, or limited secure placement for medium risk types, either level to have what Busching called “a brownstone setting”. Schooling would continue for those confined. In the city in 2010, Bloomberg consolidated a system that had three secure detention facilities and 16 that were less secure. About 800 youths were studied to see which were likely to be rearrested or less or not likely. One event that followed was a drop in the recidivism rate; another was the closing of the Bridges (formerly Spofford) Juvenile Center in The Bronx.
The first question from the audience was about parental involvement and how it could be enhanced. Richter said he and the others had recently traveled to Missouri to see the widely praised “Missouri model” for lowering recidivism and keeping it low. That program adheres to the idea that “kids’ families know their kids best”. The possibility of family dysfunction was immediately raised and Busching said therapy sessions might be necessary; but, he emphasized, they are not feasible when families and their children are separated by 300 miles. Campbell spoke from her experience as an intervention officer handling family cases. She said that it is often a matter of changing the behavior of both youth and their parents through individual and family sessions to see to the needs of all parties. “It’s hard,” she said, “but we don’t give up.” But the question of rifts between parents and youth—characterized as “not wanted and not wanting”—seemed to bother many in attendance. Responding to one worried person, Richter said that years of experience as a court-appointed attorney taught him that kids and their families want each other very much. Campbell added that, however rebellious, kids really want to please their parents, she has found. Bermudez spoke of mentoring that must address the “push-pull” of family life: the need for it and the need to get free of it.
Busching and Lisante emphasized that they are dealing with people 15 years old, on average. Busching said that when adolescents enter detention, all attention should be paid to the value of their post-detention lives, and to that end schooling and job training are paramount. But what of leadership training? He referred again to the Missouri model, and how behavior management tries to integrate youth into a system where both good and bad individual behavior will affect everyone—the mantra being, “My behavior will affect yours.” One young man in the audience responded by bringing up the case of another young man, a Riker’s Island inmate who, in his words, “went AWOL” in his behavior, the principal effect of which was to get him killed. Busching, remembering the case, said errant adult behavior led to that catastrophe, but the man in the audience found the explanation fell short, though he said he was sympathetic to an individual who is contrary to group conformity. Lisante said that talent, such as musicians, brought into the institutions as entertainment also tends to suggest different behaviors for the youthful spectators to think about. But yet another young man, who gave his name only as Charles, was challenging in his inquiry about what programs ACS could bring to the community as a counter to the television he finds poisonous or the rock stars he said were “no persons to look up to”. Richter admitted that ACS “needs to do more” in that respect and praised Charles’ “good points”.
A woman complained that all they were talking about still looked like the top-down approach, but another said there’s a good talent pool of “professional people” in Southeast Queens that should be persuaded to participate in aiding these youth who find themselves detained but close to home. Busching said exactly that must be done, while Richter said that to hear such a suggestion was “the reason we came here”. She and those talented professionals she spoke of are the real people the insider professionals at ACS need, the panelists agreed.
When asked how soon the non-secure residences that are Phase I of the Close to Home plan could be in place, Richter said if a new law allowing the plan could be passed this spring, it could be working in September. But, he also said, if everything turns out as planned, “We’ll have a lot of work to do” revamping the system. Bringing those already at home into the plan could be vital to its success.