New York City could be a leader in juvenile justice reform

Raise the Age
Raise the Age
Images by Shutterstock, illustration by Zach Williams
New York City has until October 1 to implement Raise the Age legislation.

New York City could be a leader in juvenile justice reform

But first the city has to implement Raise the Age legislation on time.
July 27, 2018

Deep inside the Manhattan headquarters of the Administration for Children’s Services on the morning of July 24, a contract with deep implications for the future of juvenile justice nationwide quietly moved forward.

An upcoming contract between the agency and the nonprofit Missouri Youth Services Institute had its public hearing that day before one reporter and two ACS staffers. One of the staffers read a pro forma description of the contract into a cassette recorder. And just like that, the years’ long effort to move teens out of the adult prison system moved one step forward – with less than nine weeks remaining for the city to implement Raise the Age legislation.

It’s expected to take an additional two months to register the three-year, $1.8 million contract – which means it would take effect just days before the October deadline despite its April 1, 2018 start date. This contract will play an important role in implementing Raise the Age because MYSI will train ACS and nonprofit contractor staff in the finer points of the Missouri Model, an approach to juvenile justice that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. All of this will play a critical role in transforming New York City into a nationwide leader in juvenile justice, Mark Steward, founder and director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, said in a telephone interview.

“I would say New York City is right at the forefront,” he said.

That new distinction would be a marked contrast to the laws and policies that previously defined New York’s juvenile justice system – a system that mostly mixed teens in with the adult population on Rikers Island or far away from home in upstate facilities when MSYI first started consulting with the city about five years ago. Many juveniles had also been subjected to trauma of solitary confinement, most notably in the case of Kalief Browder.

“Instead of being the cop on the beat with the nightstick or the mace in the facility it just changes the whole way of doing business,” Steward said of the model developed during his 17-year tenure overseeing Missouri’s Division of Youth Services. “It’s diffusing. It’s getting to the issues. It’s coming to the youth with: ‘We’re here to help you. We’re not here to hurt you.’”

Whether the city will be able to implement such a model by the October deadline is unclear. Only about one-fifth of the 200 youth development specialists needed by ACS have been officially hired, according to a spokeswoman. Background checks on some 158 people are currently “in the process.”

The staff-to-youth ratio implemented in Missouri juvenile facilities may be what’s largely responsible for the success of the Missouri Model, according to a March analysis by the Denver Post. It also states more empirical research is needed in order to ascertain the overall effectiveness of the model and how it affects youth recidivism rates over time.

In the meantime, advertisements and community outreach continue to seek more applicants. Once hired they receive six weeks of training, including one week with MYSI consultants.

But there may not be enough specialists in place by the October 1 deadline for the city to remove all offenders younger than 18 from the adult facilities on Riker Island. The city is rushing to get the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx ready by then, but earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to say whether the city would meet the deadline, PIX 11 reported.

The mayor blamed the state for potential delays, suggesting difficulties with getting state permission to use the Ella McQueen facility in Brooklyn as an intake center. The Crossroads facility in Brownsville, Brooklyn would also house juvenile offenders as part of Raise the Age efforts.

“The bottom line is we need to align the facilities we will use and we need some help from the state in terms of getting access to the right facilities,” de Blasio told PIX 11.

A July 27 article in Politico New York outlined the challenges faced by the city in staffing facilities for Raise the Age. Bureaucratic delays will lead to 300 correction officers having to staff the Horizon Juvenile Center, though about 90 childrens services workers will do programming during the day at the facility. Two years will be needed to fully transfer staffing responsibilities to the youth development specialists, according to Politico.

But according to the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, the city will meet the October deadline despite the staffing shortage.

"We are on track to meet this ambitious deadline and are dedicating every available resource toward moving adolescents off of Rikers Island and into age-appropriate facilities that have the kinds of programmatic and developmental services that will help get these young people on a better path," Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, said in an email.

A lawsuit filed in late May by the Correction Captains Association and the Deputy Wardens Association aimed to stop a city effort to use correction officers in juvenile facilities as a stopgap measure while more youth development specialists are hired, Chronicle for Social Change reported on June 14.

“A lack of planning on the mayor’s part should not constitute an emergency on municipal unions’ part,” the petition read.

Whether or not New York City makes the deadline, the transformation of its juvenile justice system continues with the help of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, which will devote a handful of staffers to ACS and its nonprofit contractors over the upcoming three years.

Its 11-step process has weaned cities and states across the country off of punitive juvenile justice approaches. Two contracts totalling about $800,000 transformed the system in Santa Clara, Calif. by implementing the Missouri Model in between 2006 and 2009, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of the County Counsel. Similar efforts have taken Steward to Los Angeles, Virginia, Louisiana and other jurisdictions, he said.

While the model was developed in Missouri, New York City presents the ultimate test of whether rehabilitation, empathy and small-facilities are the solution to the shortcomings of the large correctional institutions that were previously in vogue among juvenile justice agencies nationwide. An old Sinatra lyric comes to mind, Steward said when considering the city’s new place in reform efforts nationwide.

“If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere,” he said.

Editor's note: This article was updated post-publication to include comment from the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.

Zach Williams
Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at New York Nonprofit Media and sister publication City & State.