How NY Reformed Its Juvenile Justice System

The Miami Herald, examining problems in Florida’s juvenile justice system, reports on how New York State changed its own system after criticism.

A New York state group home run by a century-old human services agency with roots as a charity for sick children has virtually nothing in common with the razor-wire fortresses that house many of Florida’s youthful offenders. Juvenile justice administrators designed it that way, the Miami Herald reports. “The deprivation of liberty is the punishment,” said Gladys Carrion, retired commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services and former head of the state system. Contrasting youth justice programs such as New York’s with most others, a National Institute of Justice report last year said of the latter: “Whether they are called ‘training schools’ or ‘youth centers,’ nearly all of these facilities are youth prisons.” It added: “This ill-conceived and outmoded approach is a failure, with high costs and recidivism rates and institutional conditions that are often appalling. Every youth prison in the country should be closed, and replaced with a network of community-based programs and small facilities near the youths’ communities.”

Neither New York City nor other reform-minded youth justice systems have embraced so sweeping an approach. The detainees who represent the greatest risk still are housed in prison-like institutions, and the most dangerous often are charged and incarcerated as adults. That’s especially true in Florida, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of charging and trying juveniles in adult court, a practice called “direct file.” New York state faced a series of tragedies and struggles before reform. In 2006, an emotionally troubled 15-year-old died during a physical restraint at a youth prison, leading to a $3.5 million lawsuit settlement. Three years later, the Justice Department concluded an investigation into New York State’s youth justice effort, finding an unnecessarily “high degree of force” throughout the system, leading to “an excessive number of injuries.” At the same time, almost two-thirds of youths released from custody were rearrested within two years.