New York City Council confronted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration today on a steady increase in the use of force in two youth detention facilities.
“We all agree there’s a problem, the numbers lay that out,” said Manhattan Councilman Keith Powers (D), chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, to a group of administration officials who appeared to testify. “What is the game plan between now and next year to improve those numbers? … What programs, services or staffing?”
The Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx and Crossroads in Brooklyn house teenagers awaiting trial on criminal charges, for more serious offenses.
According to city data released today, youth in Horizon were physically restrained 181 times in the most recent quarter ending in September, up from 133 and 99 in the two previous quarters. Crossroads has also seen an increase in similar incidents, from 227 to 247, then up to 396 in the most recent quarter. Last quarter’s numbers were the highest for both facilities since October 2018, when teens were barred from adult lockups under the statewide youth justice reform law known as Raise the Age.
Councilman Rory Lancman of Queens (D) called the numbers “troubling,” and “going in the wrong direction in dramatic fashion.”
The city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) manages Crossroads, and shares management of Horizon with Department of Correction (DOC) guards transferred from the adult jails on Riker’s Island.
“The department has a use of force policy in which force is always a last resort,” testified William Barnes, an assistant chief with the corrections agency. “But I think it’s important to understand force is not always linked to a violent act. In fact, the vast majority of times where staff is using force, it could be simply pushing or guiding one youth away from another youth.”
The Children’s Services official most responsible for Horizon and Crossroads since Raise the Age’s enactment didn’t show up for today’s hearing. Felipe Franco, former deputy commissioner of juvenile justice, quit ACS last month to join the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Instead, his interim successor, Sara Hemmetter, touted ACS’ management system rewarding youth for good behavior.
“We also have coaches for staff and our managers or supervisors, to work with them one-on-one on issues related to how they’re interacting,” said Hemmeter. “The Daily Huddle is [another] extremely important part of our practice, where we … come up with behavioral plans on a daily basis for youth.”
Under Raise the Age, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) in 2017, all 16- and 17-year-olds were moved off Riker’s and into Horizon late last year. Advocates and corrections unions protested the city’s plan to have Rikers’ guards follow those youth to Horizon, in partnership with ACS. The facility quickly descended into chaos, with frequent reports of violence, and a leaked video of a youth melee. Use-of-force incidents dropped after a few months, only to spike more recently.
Nevertheless, starting in January, DOC personnel will be reduced to “a small contingent … on-site performing limited functions related to safety and security,” reads Hemmeter’s written testimony. ACS has been hiring and training hundreds of so-called Youth Development Specialists to replace the corrections guards in Horizon — a key component of the city’s plan to realize the rehabilitative vision behind Raise the Age.
“We’ve been moving the staff from Crossroads to Horizon in large groups, which has created challenges in terms of destabilizing our treatment teams that exist on individual units,” testified Charles Parkins, another ACS detention official under Hemmeter. “Over the next year we should see those teams stabilize.”
New York became one of the last states to raise the age for automatic adult prosecution when Cuomo signed the contested reform. In a September report, members of the Governor’s Raise the Age Task Force called the law “successfully implemented,” citing large declines in youth arrests, arraignments, detention and sentencing. Yet, according to a late October update from a court-appointed corrections monitor, Horizon — one of eight higher-security youth facilities statewide, retrofitted to be more pro-social — remained “plagued by high rates of violence and use of force, despite a declining population.”
“For a detention center, it seems remarkably unstructured. There seems to be a problem with people going to school,” said Lancman, who toured the facility yesterday with Powers and councilwoman Farah Louis of Brooklyn (D). “Then after school they seem to have a lot unstructured time. There are things to do if one chooses to avail themselves, but if not, it seems like a lot of opportunity to do nothing.”
The October report from the court-appointed monitor noted “chronic tardiness” to school, with detained students arriving an hour late each day, on average.
Advocates today hailed the implementation of Raise the Age citywide, but expressed alarm about the lingering presence of Corrections’ punitive approach in Horizon.
“It is very unsettling for the young people to be in a room and have adults, usually very large adults, suited up in full-on riot gear, armor, the whole nine yards,” said Nancy Ginsburg, director of the Legal Aid Society’s Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Team, describing frequent security crackdowns by DOC. “When you talk about DOC withdrawing from [Horizon] except for these teams,” she added, “they are going to rush into housing areas or common areas, and the schools, in this gear, and … take the kids down.”
The presence of armor-bearing guards “undermines everything else that goes on in the building,” added Kate Rubin, Director of Policy for Youth Represent. “Because young people aren’t seeing any distinction [between ACS and DOC].”
It was the city council’s first hearing on Raise the Age since its dedicated juvenile justice committee was dissolved last month. The council voted to suspend the former chair of that committee, Andy King of the Bronx (D), over allegations he violated the council’s anti-harassment policy, intimidated his staff, and misspent tax dollars on a staff retreat to the Virgin Islands.