New York Officials Battle Over the Fate of Innovative Program For Youth Offender Rehabilitation

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose budget proposed a cut to a program for juvenile offenders
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo Credit: Cuomo administration

In what many New York City officials and youth advocates see as a startling and possibly cynical move, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) is pushing a budget proposal that eliminates the $41 million in state funding for a popular city program aimed at improving life outcomes for juvenile offenders. The program, called Close to Home, keeps youth convicted of minor crimes within city limits instead of sending them to state-run facilities hours upstate.

“Everyone agrees Close to Home is the right approach to ensure that children involved in the juvenile justice system are placed close to their families, in their home communities. The governor has been committed to that, but this initial budget proposal is concerning,” said Ronald Richter, CEO of the nonprofit JCCA, and former head of the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). While at ACS, Richter was instrumental in creating Close to Home, which marked the culmination of a series of juvenile justice system reforms that the city began pursuing in the late 2000s.

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose city could lose funding for program serving juvenile offenders.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio. Photo Credit: De Blasio administration

Richter declined to blame the governor’s move to defund Close to Home on Cuomo’s unusually visible and bitter rivalry with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — for one, both are rumored to have their sights on the democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — but other stakeholders in the child welfare system who spoke to the Chronicle were less charitable.

“I swear to God the governor wakes up some days to figure out how to harass the mayor,” said one person familiar with negotiations over the budget who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the Governor’s attempt to zero-out state funding for the city-run program. A spokesperson for the Cuomo administration told the Chronicle of Social Change that while “New York State remains committed to Close to Home” it expects the program “to continue with city funding.”

Close to Home has long been considered an essential component of the state’s efforts to address the youth justice system’s skyrocketing costs and abysmal youth recidivism rates.  The federal Department of Justice provided further motivation for reform in 2009, after the department found that upstate juvenile facilities “violate constitutional standards” through the use of excessive force and unnecessary restraints on youth, among other violations.  Roughly 250 New York City teens were moved back into the city from upstate lockups late in 2012,  after Cuomo included funding for Close to Home in the 2012-2013 budget. Hundreds more youth have since been placed in one of several dozen less-restrictive homes citywide, allowing them to attend alternative public schools in the city as well.

The loss of state funds for the program — about 40 percent of the program’s budget — would come just as the juvenile justice system statewide is girding for an influx of 16- and 17-year-old offenders. Most of these older teens will for the first time be considered juveniles in the eyes of the law as a result of another landmark reform passed in April of 2017, the so-called Raise the Age legislation.

Raise the Age laws have been a top priority for juvenile justice reform advocates nationwide, with many states adopting rules similar to New York’s in recent years. The reforms coincide with the growing acceptance among lawmakers and the courts of the long-established consensus in research psychology that youth offenders in their late teens have yet to fully develop the cognitive skills necessary for adequate risk assessment in decision-making. Therefore, the thinking goes, they have a much better chance to grow out of bad behavior and rehabilitate themselves.

The Close to Home program in New York — which places a heavy emphasis on emotional development for youth offenders — was also inspired by those findings.

As a result of New York’s Raise the Age legislation, the number of youth eligible for Close to Home will skyrocket, with enrollment expected to triple in the coming years.

“The Governor deserves credit for partnering with [Former new York City Mayor] Michael Bloomberg to create Close to Home. New York City is the only place that doesn’t send any kids to faraway jails. It’s revolutionary, it’s a legacy piece, and they deserve a pat on the back from juvenile advocates here and around the country. It would be a shame if Cuomo didn’t get that because of this budget,” said Vincent Schiraldi, a former Commissioner of the city’s Department of Probation and one of the architects of Close to Home. He is now on the faculty at the Columbia University School of Social Work, and advises other large cities around the country who seek to adapt the program.

A Model Reform

Five hours from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany, inside a stately brick building attached to a church in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, there are nine meticulously made beds on the second floor.

“We can tell who’s having a bad day by how tightly their bed is made,” says a counselor in this Close to Home facility for New York City teens who have been adjudicated but are deemed to be a low risk to public safety.

The boarding home’s sturdy doors are always locked, and the boys are required to wake at dawn and are never unsupervised. But an unarmed civilian staff operates this facility run by the nonprofit Leake & Watts. There are never more than 12 youth housed here, and the staff are trained to emphasize emotional and creative development with them.

Until recently, these youth would be sent hours away to large, prison-like institutions in the snow-whipped fields outside of Ithaca or Rochester in upstate New York. Now they get sent within city limits to facilities like the one in Bensonhurst, ensuring families can regularly visit their semi-incarcerated sons and daughters in places more closely resembling a college dorm than a jail. For offenders deemed to be a higher risk, a few of the Close to Home facilities, known as limited secure placements, have tighter security.

Well-documented problems with runaways and a few high-profile tragedies marred the program’s reputation in its first few years of operation after a hasty rollout. The program made headlines when a 17-year-old boy left his placement in Queens and stabbed an 18-year-old man to death. In another instance, three boys left a facility in the Bronx and robbed and raped a woman in Chinatown.

But by most metrics, Close to Home’s administration in non-secure settings has dramatically improved. Runaways declined 41 percent, and assaults and physical altercations dropped 38 percent from 2015 to 2016. Further, advocates point to research that suggests moving juveniles to placements near their families will reduce recidivism rates over time.

A War of Words

The debate between the city and state over the funding proposal and other juvenile justice issues heated up over the last week.

“Given the governor’s positive vision for reforming juvenile justice, the remarkable success of Close to Home and the surge of young people who will need to be placed in Close to Home once Raise the Age is implemented, the state should be expanding its commitment to Close to Home this year,” wrote ACS’s current commissioner, David Hansell, in a New York Daily News op-ed on Saturday. “Which is why it is so puzzling that Cuomo’s initial budget proposal would eliminate all state funding for Close to Home, and put the $75 million — and likely growing — burden for paying for this vital program almost entirely on the city’s shoulders.”

In response to questions about the Governor’s motives for zeroing out the program, a spokesperson for Cuomo sent The Chronicle via e-mail a letter to the editor by Alphonso David, legal counsel to the governor, in response to Hansell’s op-ed in the Daily News. David called Hansell’s op-ed “inaccurate, misleading and frankly perplexing,” pointing to the state budget deficit and the city’s budget surplus.

“As the five-year [Close To Home] pilot phase expires this year, the governor’s executive budget extends all of the provisions of the program with no programmatic change or impact on our youth,” David wrote. “New York City government claims that — although Close to Home is a city-run program, although the state has moved to reauthorize it and although the city has a $9 billion surplus — they should not be responsible for funding the program. And if they are responsible to pay, the continuation of the program would be threatened. This argument is illogical, intellectually dishonest and questions the city government’s credibility and commitment to the initiative in the first place.”

Advocates like Richter, and other current and former public officials involved in creating the program who spoke to the Chronicle remain hopeful the Governor’s initial budget is just a starting point, and that the state will end up providing funding to what they say is a landmark  program.

“The state has to figure out how to support the city with Raise the Age coming,” said Richter. “New York City is in a tough, tough spot with respect to the entire juvenile justice system. We are going to have to figure out how to get the state to participate in what has been a partnership in creating a progressive juvenile justice system in the city and state.”

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 26 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change

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