NEW YORK — Facing 18 months of state detention for robbery, the 16-year-old from Staten Island said he’s hoping to earn his high school equivalency and go to college. He didn’t have a particular hope regarding his transfer to one of the state’s 35 residential facilities.
“I’m not really hoping for nothing, but I’m hoping for a good facility, not one that there’s a lot of fighting in ’cause I don’t want to get a lot of extra days,” he said. “I’m hoping that I can learn how to control my anger more, learn how to get my impulse control under control, just get done with my time and go home free.”
It was mid-April at the Pyramid Intake Center in the Bronx. State officials agreed to let him be interviewed. He volunteered. But his name, like his records, had to remain confidential.
Statistically, his odds for advancing his education while locked up were good. His prospects for staying free afterward were poor. The state Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) estimates half the juveniles in New York custody advance more than a grade level in math and reading, most in detention less than a year. But 80 percent will be arrested again within three years after they leave.
A dozen programs nationally have proved to cut recidivism, others are being tested, and New York’s new social services administrator is pushing for change away from lockups.
“Instead of continuing to pour money into this broken system and confining these children to facilities hundreds of miles from their homes, OCFS has aggressively been moving toward more community-based alternatives,” said Commissioner Gladys Carrion, appointed last year. In a March report she called for closing five underused residential facilities upstate and Pyramid.
Carrion said the “new paradigm” emphasizes working immediately with children and families at home such programs in Missouri and New York City have shown great success. New York’s 80 percent arrest rate following detention is based on a 1999 study. Another study is planned this year, but officials said they expect it to show the rate remains high.
While there is no firm national recidivism rate, since state programs and reporting vary so widely, studies across the country often show re-arrests of 55 to 65 percent for juveniles in the system, said Melissa Sickmund, author of a 2006 U.S. Justice Department report. For certain populations, like those actually incarcerated, it tends to be higher, she said.
Meanwhile, national data show juvenile crime dropping 24 percent from 1997 to 2006 with an estimated 2.2 million arrests of those under 18 two years ago. Both prosecutors and social workers emphasized accountability.
“From a law enforcement perspective, we don’t disagree that the family needs to be fixed, and whatever the issues are [there],” said Rick Trunfio, first chief assistant district attorney for Onondaga County, N.Y., which includes Syracuse. “But the criminal justice system is designed to hold people and their conduct accountable. … I think that juveniles that have the capability to reason like adults and know the difference between right and wrong and commit violent acts should be held accountable.”
At age 16 in New York, younger for certain violent crimes, teens face prosecution in adult court as “juvenile offenders,” though with a more lenient sentencing structure. Younger lawbreakers generally go to Family Court as “juvenile delinquents.”
The three-year recidivism rate is 73 percent for 16 year-olds convicted as adults, compared with 39 percent for New York inmates overall.
“I think for a long time people sort of had the idea nothing worked,” said Sickmund, chief of systems research for the nonprofit National Center for Juvenile Justice. “I think the thing now is people know that stuff works. It’s matching the right stuff with the right kids and having the money to do it and do it well.”
The MacArthur Foundation this year is spending $100 million on grants aimed in part at creating model programs in Louisiana, Washington, Pennsylvania and Illinois. There are other model programs out there.
One program, Functional Family Therapy, is used in 10,000 cases a year in the U.S. and Europe, costing about $2,500 per case, chief executive Doug Kopp said.
For three to four months, a trained therapist works intensively with the juvenile and the entire family. A recent study in Washington state of young parolees showed a drop in felony recidivism from 28 percent to 17 percent within 18 months of release, Kopp said.(p2)
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