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State must create a humane, cost-efficient system

If kids are our most precious resource, we must do whatever we can to reclaim those who get in trouble. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature should seize the opportunity not only to transform the lives of thousands of youth, but to save millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

The juvenile justice system in New York State is broken. More than 80 percent of boys released from juvenile detention centers are rearrested within a few short years. It is expensive, costing taxpayers an average of $220,000 per child per year. Costs will continue to rise, as utilization declines but the fixed costs remain.

In his State of the State speech, Cuomo targeted this ineffective and fiscally burdensome system as ripe for reform. He singled out its most egregious aspects -- a number of underutilized detention centers and a "12-month rule" that requires facilities slated for closure to be kept fully staffed for a full year even if they house no youth. Addressing just these two components would reap significant savings, and the governor has committed to reinvesting those dollars into programs that work.

Closing unneeded facilities and ending the 12-month rule are the first items on the governor's agenda, but they do not constitute reform. A successful juvenile justice system keeps youngsters closer to their homes and families, and provides them with services that can direct them toward productive lives. These services are less costly, bothfinancially and socially, in the short and long term.

In Erie County, the Family Voices Network has been working to transform the way services are delivered to vulnerable children and their families for nearly 10 years. Providing coordinated services designed to keep children in their homes and communities -- and out of juvenile detention -- helps ensure that at-risk youth have a chance to become productive, self-sufficient members of our community. It also makes financial sense: Estimates suggest that home-based services to troubled youth can be provided for between $6,000 and $17,000 a year, a fraction of the cost of state incarceration.

Early intervention and prevention services like child care, child abuse and neglect prevention, after-school programs and summer youth employment not only cost far less up front than later incarceration, evidence suggests that every dollar spent on these types of services can save up to $7 in reduced expenditures on later interventions.

States across the country are seeking to reform their juvenile justice systems. With the right leadership from the governor and the Legislature, New York has the opportunity to reclaim the state's historic role as the incubator of humane policies that work.

We applaud Cuomo's initial efforts and urge him to work toward a true program of reform and reinvestment in juvenile justice that will save dollars and restore young lives.

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Michael Weiner is president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.

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