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Juvenile injustice; Proposals to reform broken system may leave localities with big costs

When it comes to dealing with juvenile delinquents, not a lot of money is available for alternatives to detention and incarceration. As a result, New York spends more money than it should on locking up young people, instead of trying to help them rehabilitate their lives.

The Citizens Committee for Children is working on a juvenile justice reform campaign, an effort worth the attention of the governor and the Legislature.

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo emphasized that juvenile justice cannot be a jobs program. To that end, he proposed closing some underutilized facilities and ending the 12-month rule that requires facilities slated for closure to be kept fully staffed for a full year even if they house no youth. That was a good start.

As the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County's Michael Weiner recently stated in The News' Another Voice column, young people should be kept closer to their homes and families, and provided with services that can direct them toward productive lives.

Cuomo is attempting to change a broken system but his proposal may require fine tuning. His idea is to create two community block grant funds for counties to tap into. One, for juveniles placed in local detention, would cost dramatically less than today's system. The second would help counties to create alternatives to detention and incarceration programs that they can tap into on a 62-38 cost split, with the state putting up the larger amount.

But in order to tap into state funding, cash-strapped counties without alternative youth programs would have to create them -- at taxpayer cost.

Cuomo also takes what is now an open-ended reimbursement stream for local detention, caps it and turns it into block grants, so localities are not paid for placing low- and medium-risk youth in detention. Instead, localities would be reimbursed only for high-risk youths in detention.

In theory, that creates a great motivation for alternative programs, but there is a catch. In the absence of an actual infrastructure to divert youth from detention, costs for localities will rise, further hamstringing counties' ability to get to this new money on alternatives.

It's commonly believed, and for good reason, that low- to medium-risk youth can be successfully placed in cost-effective alternatives that tend to produce lower recidivism and higher graduation rates. But there are counties all over the state without alternatives to detention and incarceration or insufficient capacities.

The governor has signaled a willingness to find better alternatives to detention and incarceration for low- to moderate-risk youths -- profoundly less expensive than detention and incarceration. That's important and we encourage his attention. But localities have to be considered in the process.

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