On the Cusp of Major Reform, New York City’s Juvenile Justice Commissioner Speaks to The Chronicle

Felipe Franco Raise the Age juvenile justice Administration for Children's Serves
Felipe Franco, Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services

A landmark piece of progressive legislation, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), is about to go into partial effect on October 1. Under the “Raise the Age” law he signed in 2017, the state will soon consider most 16- and 17-year-olds to be juveniles and not adults in the eyes of the law. It’s a big, costly overhaul to courts, detention facilities, probation departments and youth support programs statewide. In conjunction with these reforms, New York City is also required to move all teenagers held at Rikers Island into less-punitive settings designed exclusively for juveniles.

The city’s Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), one of the largest local child welfare agencies in the country, is racing to meet the Oct. 1 deadline, creating new positions, hiring hundreds of people, and transferring dozens of youths currently held at Rikers — a globally notorious city jail slated for closure — to new facilities.

Meanwhile, the city’s Close to Home initiative, its system of local services and facilities for youth adjudicated by a juvenile court, faces a major influx of older teens in a year when the state has ceased to be a funding partner. The system will heavily rely on the Missouri model, a service-intensive approach to treating juvenile offenders, with the aim of reducing recidivism, which has never been scaled like it will be in New York City.

The Chronicle of Social Change spoke to Felipe Franco, the deputy commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice of ACS, about Raise the Age, Close to Home and the latest on juvenile justice in New York City.

For those not following, what is the latest on juvenile justice?

There are so many things we can talk about, but I think we can begin with “Raise the Age.” As of April 2017, New York State finally passed the legislation to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. Beginning in [Oct. 1] 2018, young people who are 16 years old would be processed through the juvenile justice system when they commit a crime.

I think it’s really important to keep in mind that New York City has been at the forefront of being able to safely reduce the number of young people who get to detention and placement. If you look at the numbers all the way back from 2010 to 2017, the system has shrunk by 62 percent while having the lowest level of juvenile crime.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in implementing “Raise the Age?”

[Raise the Age] touches every piece of the juvenile justice system. For example, for the first time in New York City — and maybe the first time in New York State — young people are going to be arraigned all the way until 1 a.m., so we at ACS are building the capacity to be able to man those special sections of the court that would be open late at night.

We are building the capacity to transport young people safely and also rebuilding our facilities [Horizon and Crossroads Juvenile Center] to accommodate the needs of older youths. But we are also building a significant number of new programs and we actually have two new Request for Proposals to develop new alternative to placement programs that are particularly designed for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Is the City in line to meet the Oct. 1 deadline for moving eligible 16-year-olds into new, compliant facilities and moving all teens out of Riker’s?

Yes, we are.

Advocates have expressed concerns about temporarily staffing juvenile centers with Department of Correction Officers from Rikers Island and other NYC jails. The corrections officers have sued over the plans. Are you moving forward with the plan, or are you considering alternatives?

[Ed. note — Shortly before this interview was published, the New York Daily News reported that a judge has issued a temporary restrain order, halting the city’s plans to use corrections officers in the new juvenile centers. ACS did not respond to a request to update Franco’s response here.]

The legislation is clear. It requires the cooperation between the Department of Corrections (DOC) and ACS on what is called a Specialized Juvenile Detention facility. That’s the facility where young people who are now in Rikers — and those who will be 17 years old after October 2018 — have to be housed when they commit a crime. It’s clearly articulated in the regulation and we have been working really hard with DOC and with the state to develop a new set of policies that meet the “Raise the Age” standard. All of that is based on juvenile justice principles and that’s how we will all behave in the facilities. The guidance from the state will dictate the behavior of staff of the department of correction when they are serving these kids.

In late May, ACS announced that it was hiring 200 “Youth Development Specialists” by Oct. 1st when Raise the Age begins to take effect. How many have you hired to date? And will you be hiring people with a criminal background?

We are poised to meet our target of 175 Youth Development Specialists by Oct. 1. I’ve actually met with two classes each of them is 50. I can tell you that the folks I’ve met are amazing. They are purposefully driven and really want to make a difference in the life of young people.

We believe that [individuals with criminal background] have the ability to be transformative mentors and partners and can help our young people change because they come from the same communities and have similar experiences. But again, we have a very strict guideline that we have to abide by from the state in terms of doing thorough background checks for anyone that we hire.

Is ACS building more space for the kids coming from Rikers and others who would be coming after Oct. 1? Are you worried about overcrowding of Horizon and Crossroads?

We have reduced the number of young people in detention, like I said before, by 62 percent from 2010 to 2017. The number of young people in those systems and in Rikers has reduced significantly in the last five years.

The population of Rikers is usually below 100 for 16- and 17-year-olds and we have a facility of 160. There’s no reason to believe that there will be overcrowding; we have more than enough space. On Oct. 1, 2018, if a 16-year-old gets arrested he will go through the family court process instead of going to criminal court and if that 16-year-old is deemed to need detention before adjudication he would come to Crossroads.

I have 106 beds available at Crossroads. And we have a population of about 45 kids today. So we have space for the new kids coming in.

The City is now responsible for funding two reforms – “Close to Home” and “Raise the Age” – without state support. How is that going? And how much do you anticipate the implementation of these programs will cost the city?

The fact that Close to Home was not funded [in the latest state government budget, as proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo] was surprising. But because the city believes in the program we put up $34 million to make sure the program continues, and we still hope New York State will fund the “Raise the Age” as they are doing in every other jurisdiction in the state.

We estimate that it will cost the ACS about $100 million to fully implement “Raise the Age.” We expect, like every other county in New York, that we would be reimbursed for those costs. There is some language that came up in the most recent budget that actually seem to exclude New York City from funding of “Raise the Age.”  I’ve been around, and I can’t believe that will happen.

We are actually hopeful that state will reimburse for our cost as they do with everyone else. I feel that the same way that Nassau County, Westchester County and Onondaga County are going to be reimbursed, New York City will be reimbursed the same way. Our kids are as important as any of those other kids.

The Missouri Model – a service-intensive approach to treating juvenile offenders, with the aim of reducing recidivism – has never been scaled like it will be in New York City. Colorado’s experience suggests that youth-to-staffing ratios are key to safely implementing it: The state had violent incidents at 11:1, whereas Missouri’s model appears to have worked better at 6:1. What do you expect the staffing ratio to be in the Missouri-like facilities in New York City? 

Starting in October, New York City plans to stop using Rikers Island to detain juveniles, instead using the Horizon Juvenile Center and Crossroads Juvenile Center

This is one of the things that I am passionate about so stop me if I talk too much. Yes, we have been actually working with developers of the Missouri Youth Services Institute. So, the Missouri Model for the last two and half years has been adapted to New York City particularly to detention. We have staff within ACS that are actually certified license trainers and we have been implementing that [Missouri Model] very successfully at Crossroads and it’s going really well.

About staffing, New York City intends to have a very rich ratio of 6:1 meaning there would be one staff for every six kids in our detention facilities. That will allow us to build the relationship and attention that are essential to implementing the Missouri Model with fidelity. But also, you know we’re doing all of those things that are important to the Missouri Model which is the use of due process and working with the teams, the peers and the group leaders to ensure that our young people hold each other accountable to do better on a daily basis.

Ahmed Jallow is a freelance reporter based in New York City.

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