State's system produces overwhelming recidivism
The time has come to fix New York Stateís juvenile justice system. Advocates have pleaded for changes to the system for a long time. When Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer named me commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, we agreed that assessing the systemís weaknesses and strengths would be a top priority.
I spent the last year visiting facilities and meeting with young adults, families and family court judges. What I found were troubled children Ė overwhelmingly poor, mostly African-Americans and Latinos Ė housed hundreds of miles from their families and neighborhoods, and far from hope.
We are charged with ensuring the safety of our communities, and some of these 2,000 children did commit serious offenses. But the majority of them are not hardened criminals. They were all under the age of 16 when they committed acts that would have been crimes if committed by an adult. Most of them are between 12 and 18 years old. A few are as young as 10.
Our approach to addressing the needs of these children must draw on current research on adolescent brain development. That means intervention and support. This includes education, job training and mental health and substance abuse services.
But thatís not what the state has been doing. Instead, it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on a system that does not work. As many as 80 percent of the children who enter the system come back to us or go to prison within three years. Thatís grossly unacceptable, especially compared to alternative community-based programs that have a 30 percent recidivism rate.
Even more astonishing, as the number of children in custody has dropped, we continue to pay for empty beds at annual costs from $100,000 to $200,000 each. Nearly a dozen of the stateís youth facilities are operating under 40 percent of capacity. At some, as few as a quarter of the beds are filled.
Instead of continuing to pour money into this system, the governorís budget proposes investing our tax dollars in programs that better prevent youth crime, including identifying and helping these children before they come into the system, at a fraction of that cost.
This includes supporting a community- based system where these children can maintain and strengthen connections with their families and the significant adults in their lives. Once these children have completed treatment, we need to transition them into after-care and re-entry programs that support them and their families, train them for real jobs and provide continued access to education.
The transformation of New Yorkís juvenile justice system has been a long time coming. At stake is nothing less than the health and future of our most troubled children and their families.
Commissioner of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
31 January 2008