Op-Ed: Closing Under-Used Facilities Makes Financial Sense (Buffalo News)

March 24, 2008 —  By John A. Curr III — Sheriff Timothy Howard correctly calls the state’s juvenile justice system a costly failure (Another Voice, March 14), yet he opposes cutting state funding for pretrial juvenile detention. He argues that doing so would threaten public safety.

The sheriff should reconsider. The budget proposal, which legislators have since mostly gutted, was an important measure that would have strengthened public safety by decreasing recidivism among youthful offenders.

According to the Office of Children and Family Services, the vast majority of children in juvenile detention facilities were incarcerated for misdemeanors, including probation violations and truancy. These are not hardened criminals who must “be locked up to protect the public.” But a sure way to mold juveniles into violent thugs is to house them in a failed detention system.

The system wastes huge sums of taxpayers’ money. For example, Cattaraugus County’s Great Valley residential center has 25 beds — at $150,000 per bed per year — but only 11 children currently in residence. That’s more than $2 million being spent on empty space each year.

Over in Cayuga County’s 24-bed Auburn Residential Center, there are no children in residence and have not been any for more than a year. Closing a facility that isn’t being used is common sense.

Shockingly, the State Senate is pushing to keep Great Valley, Auburn and a third under-utilized detention center open, despite the Office of Children and Family Services’ wise decision to close them.

Politicians have their reasons to keep failing, inefficient detention facilities open. The 50 percent state reimbursement counties receive for pretrial detention is a strong financial incentive to lock up young people.

The jobs juvenile detention facilities provide is another incentive to maintain the status quo, though agency Commissioner Gladys Carrion has worked to ensure the staff members affected by closures would be assigned new positions in the agency.

Closing these facilities not only would improve public safety and save money, but it also would address disturbing racial disparities inherent in the current juvenile detention system. Black and Latino youth comprise 86 percent of inmates of juvenile detention facilities statewide, a figure much higher than their representation in the population. About 60 percent of youth in state custody come from New York City, which is also disproportionate to the state population. These young people are locked away far from their families, who should be intimately involved in their rehabilitation process.

Inefficient and underutilized facilities should be closed and resources redirected to support the community-based alternative to incarceration programs that Howard himself says is effective in rehabilitating youthful offenders.

John A. Curr III is the director of the Western Regional Office of the New York Civil Liberties Union in Buffalo.