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SHOULD NEW YORK State close most of its homes for rowdy juveniles, like the poorly managed centers in Buffalo, and contract with private organizations for many similar services?

Statewide Youth Advocacy, a non-profit coalition of organizations from around the state concerned with youth problems and solutions, thinks the answer is yes.

But the Division of Youth, which operates the centers, and the state Civil Service Employees Association, which helps staff them, disagree. "Frankly," said a CSEA spokesman, his group considered Statewide's report "absurd."

Their vested interests -- bureaucratic turf and jobs -- in the state-operated program are plain enough. But the public interest calls for a more serious look.

Comparing New York and Massachusetts programs, Statewide found significant differences. Whereas costs for keeping each youth under the division's jurisdiction in these centers averaged $84,000 a year in New York, Massachusetts averaged about a third of that: $23,000. Yet the rate of repeat offenders in New York was about half again as high as the same rate in Massachusetts: 76 percent here to 53 percent there.

If the comparisons are roughly analogous, New York gets fewer results for more money, a disturbing trend.

Critics of the study dispute the analogy. New York and Massachusetts are different, they say. But how different can youthful criminals be here and there? And if they are institutionalized differently, that is just the point: Many homes in lower-cost Massachusetts are privately operated, whereas in New York they are not.

Moreover, with a recidivism rate of over 75 percent, New York in general and its Division of Youth in particular ought to be less defensive and more adventuresome. They should search out and sympathetically explore novel approaches, not excluding contracts with private organizations.

Simply saying Statewide Youth Advocacy is well-meaning but not sufficiently informed is not good enough -- not when the state program has become demonstrably sloppy, expensive and ineffective. Not when the Statewide study concludes that, amid a daunting state budget crisis, contracting with private firms could save the state some $70 million of its $368 million in juvenile center programs a year.

Absurd? We doubt that. How much worse could the new approach be than the current one in which three out of every four youths passing through the program are arrested later?

Maybe the state critics of the study are right, but the idea of private contracting ought to get a thorough, thoughtful and open-minded examination. Experimenting with the idea, adding a refinement here and there, might just produce improved results for less costs.

Certainly there's not much to lose from trying.

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