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CLOSING OF JUVENILE DETENTION CENTERS URGED ADVOCACY GROUP ASKS STATE TO HIRE PRIVATE AGENCIES TO REPLACE FLAWED PROGRAM

A youth advocacy group with clout in Albany is recommending that New York close most of its juvenile detention centers and hire private organizations to take over much of the responsibility.

Three months after The Buffalo News reported on problems with the youth detention homes here, the Statewide Youth Advocacy says that New York's juvenile justice system, run by the state Division for Youth, isn't working. The report is being sent to Gov. Cuomo, legislative leaders, and other top state officials.

Statewide Youth Advocacy is a non-profit organization, funded largely through private contributions and operated by a board of directors from throughout New York composed of representatives of legal services, minorities and other youth groups.

The New York state Division for Youth is among the most costly in the country, yet produces "below average results" for the youths assigned to it, the report found.

"What are we New Yorkers spending hundreds of millions of dollars on? We are spending to support an antiquated system with crumbling infrastructure," the report states. "We are spending money to get horrifying headlines about DFY's Buffalo group homes, and other congregate facilities."

The reference was to a series of articles published in The News from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, outlining problems at the four group homes the state operates in Buffalo for delinquents.

The Division for Youth was allocated more than than $368 million this year on a variety of programs, including residential centers for 2,000 young criminals and delinquents. The state could save more than $70 million a year and do a better job with its delinquents by turning more than half of these youngsters over to the private organizations, according to the Statewide Youth Advocacy's report.

Leonard T. Dunston, director of the Division for Youth, defended his agency and described the Statewide Youth Advocacy as a well-intentioned organization that doesn't understand the extent of the state's juvenile crime problem.

The state Civil Service Employees Association also rejected the concept of turning juvenile centers over to the private sector. While acknowledging that the Division for Youth is a troubled agency that has a history of mismanagement, the union said, it wants to work with the state to improve the department, not dismantle it.

"Frankly, we think their report is absurd," said CSEA spokesman Stephen A. Madarasz.

Statewide Youth Advocacy, based in Rochester and Albany, is one of New York's leading child advocacy groups.

In its study, the group compares the costs of New York State's youth program, with that of Massachusetts.

New York spends an average of $84,000 a year for each youth under the care of the state Division for Youth.

In Massachusetts, costs of various programs run from $10,000 to $60,000 a year per youth, with an average figure of $23,000.

At the same time, the report states 76.4 percent of the youths who go through New York's juvenile justice program are arrested later, and 53.8 percent end up reincarcerated. In Massachusetts, the arrest rate of former youthful offenders is 51 percent and the reincarceration rate is 23 percent.

The major difference between the two states is that New York's juvenile jails and treatment programs are primarily large institutions, often located in rural areas, far from the residents' homes, the report says.

The Massachusetts programs is composed of small facilities, usually located close to the residents' own families. Many of the Massachusetts juvenile homes are run by private companies under contracts with the state.

Division for Youth officials in Albany said they traveled to Massachusetts earlier this month and concluded much of the Massachusetts program is inappropriate for New York. The New York officials questioned the Massachusetts' cost and recidivism figures.

The New York officials also said it is unfair to compare the two states because New York is much larger than Massachusetts. Also, they argued, New York's delinquents, half of whom come from New York City, are tougher.

The head of Statewide Youth Advocacy disagreed.

"They (New York Division for Youth officials) think that a bad kid in Baltimore is different than a bad kid in New York, is different than a bad kid in Philadelphia, is different than a bad kid in Boston," said Statewide Youth Advocacy Director Eve Brooks. "I don't think so."

Noting that that 55 percent of the 2,300 youths under the division's care were convicted of non-violent crimes, the advocacy group recommends that those teen-agers be phased out of state institutions and placed in small, community-based centers operated by the private sector.

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