New York State's juvenile justice program costs twice the national average, but is less effective than cheaper programs operating in other states.
That isn't stopping New York from continuing its practice of sending juvenile delinquents to large institutions, sometimes hundreds of miles from their homes.
While other states are closing their large institutions in favor of small juvenile centers in urban areas, New York is embarking on a $65 million plan to build a new 150-bed facility in a rural area and expand existing institutions. New York has been closing some of the smaller urban homes it does have.
New York's juvenile justice program is under heavy criticism from child advocacy groups, academics, judges and some lawmakers, who say the system is expensive and ineffective.
"The way we are going now, we are going to keep building these institutions," said Eve Brooks, director of Statewide Youth Advocacy. "How many more kids do we want to put away just to fail when they hit the streets?"
The system costs about $80,000 per youth each year, yet 76 percent of its graduates end up being arrested again, 67 percent get reconvicted and almost 54 percent end up back in state custody.
Nationally, the average cost of juvenile justice programs is $40,000 per youth per year, according to the California-based National Council on Crime an Delinquency.
In other states with reputations of better programs, The Buffalo News found:
Massachusetts spends an average $25,000 to $40,000 per youth in a system in which 20 percent of its graduates are jailed again.
Florida spends $23,000 to $48,000 per youth and claims a reincarceration rate of 30 to 40 percent.
Pennsylvania spends $29,000 to $55,000 per youth on a system that has 50 percent of its graduates arrested again. The state didn't have figures on reincarceration.
Ms. Brooks, leader of one of New York's leading child advocacy groups, blames Gov. Cuomo and other top state officials for New York's failing juvenile justice system.
"I think in the area of juvenile justice, Gov. Cuomo hasn't thought about it," Mrs. Brooks said. "It' not clear that it's deliberate, or neglect, but there's just no plan. There hasn't been a careful look."
Others say the financially strapped state agency hasn't shown the imagination needed to develop innovative programs.
"We need to go back to when DFY was a creative research laboratory and find out what works," said Clayton H. Osborne, a former regional director for the Division for Youth who now serves as director of operations for the Monroe County Executive's office. "No one has the answers."
Leonard G. Dunston, the director of New York's Division for Youth, bristles at the accusations.
He claims New York has the most extensive delinquency prevention program in the country.
Its residential program for teen-age criminals and incorrigible youths works, despite overcrowding problems, he insists.
Dunston and his top aides also reject the comparisons between New York and other states as invalid.
New York's recidivism study was more thorough than those done in other states, and costs are higher because budget items other states may not include were counted here.
But youth agency directors in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida say large institutions, which New York continues to utilize, are part of the past, a failed experiment that proved costly to run because they required additional staff and because they carried higher operating costs.
What's more, the say, teen-age delinquents are more likely to be rehabilitated in small centers, close to their homes, where parents and parole officers can visit, and be part of the youngsters' treatment.
"Over the past years, we've been phasing out the institutional settings," said George L. Hinchliffe, who runs Florida's juvenile justice program. "They are not effective. They tend to warehouse youths, rather than actually treat them and deal with their problems. In addition, they are very expensive."
"We believe smaller facilities are more conducive to treatment," said Owen Talmadege Jr., director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Children and Youth programs.
The debate over whether small facilities are better than large ones, and urban ones better than rural ones, is timely in New York, which is in the midst of a juvenile justice crisis.
New York State's juvenile jails are overcrowded, with most operating beyond capacity, forcing the state to release teen-age criminals midway through their terms.
New York has about 2,000 youths in juvenile centers, which range in size from 10-bed community group homes to 50-, 100-, and 200-bed institutions in rural areas.
So far, New York remains committed to building large institutions in rural settings. The division has received $65 million to expand existing institutions and build a new 150-bed facility in an as yet undetermined rural area.
However, the state also is looking into alternative programs for some of its less-violent youths, said Charles M. Devane, the Division for Youth's executive deputy director.
New York officials agreed that smaller centers are usually better than large ones. But with 2,000 youths in the system, Dunston said, it would be impractical for New York to duplicate the programs in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Florida. Those states are dismantling their institutions and substituting smaller centers in or near urban centers, he said.
Dunston also said New York's delinquents are more violent and have more problems than the delinquents in other states, so it is often necessary to remove them from their communities.
"It does not matter if you have them in the community while learning these new values, or away from the community," he said. "What matters is whether or not there are sufficient support systems in place for them once they return to the communities."
He also noted that when New York builds its new institution, the facility will offer the personal treatment of smaller facilities. It will be broken into three 50-bed cottages yet still possess the cost advantages associated with the centralized programs of larger facilities, Dunston said.
The division has other plans, including:
A military-type camp for juvenile delinquents, similar to the shock camps for adults.
At-home electronic monitoring, in conjunction with a day-treatment program.
Proposals to build two 24-bed cottages, one upstate and one downstate, that will have day-treatment as well as residential programs. The state hopes to build these centers near urban areas.
These programs are estimated to cost $4 million, and hopefully will reduce costs and recidivism, Devane said.
Similar programs have existed in other states for years.
About 1,000 of Florida's juvenile delinquents are in a day-treatment program at that state's Maritine Institute. The youths there are offered academic skills, such as math and reading, in conjunction with such courses on deep-sea diving and small-boat handling.
Massachusetts also operates day-treatment programs. But that state, like Florida and Pennsylvania, has more intensive aftercare than New York.
In upstate New York, aftercare workers are each assigned, on average, 30 youths. In New York City, the average caseload is 54.
The average caseload in Pennsylvania is 12 to 15, Florida, 14, and Massachusetts, 20.
The big difference, of course, is that New York has more delinquents in its custody than other states.
"I don't know how you can operate a system in New York similar to Pennsylvania's.
"New York is just too big," said Talmadege, the youth official in Pennsylvania, which has custody of 700 youths.
But Edward J. Loughran, who worked with the New York Division for Youth before being named commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services program in 1985, thinks New York could adopt its own version of the model that other states are following.
"New York is a larger state," said Loughran, who has responsibility for the 900 youths in Massachusetts' custody. "But you can take the model, and if it is cost-effective, replicate the model even with a larger population."