State and local governments are limping into a second year facing off with budgets decimated by the coronavirus. In New York state, some lawmakers are eyeing one item freighted with financial and moral burdens: the sky-high cost of youth prisons.
In November, The Imprint reported on the escalating expenses at state-operated detention facilities that have reached an annual average of nearly $900,000 per youth.
Now, informed of those costs, some legislators say they’re angry about the price tag and want to redirect that money to approaches that deliver better results.
“It’s absolutely outrageous that we’re spending so much money to keep young men and women incarcerated when we can use that money to provide services,” state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda (D) told The Imprint. Sepúlveda, who chairs the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, added: “We really have to start thinking about alternatives to incarceration.”
State Assembly member Michaelle Solages, a Nassau County Democrat, called it “just unbelievable and unfair — those are the words I’m going to say in public — but it’s just disheartening that we’re not really investing in these young people in a proper way.”
The $900 billion coronavirus aid package passed late last month includes no dedicated money for state or local governments, creating dire prospects of gutted social service programs and laid-off public servants. In New York, that frightful fiscal reality will be confronted by a new super-majority of Democrats — inspiring youth justice advocates who say the climate in Albany may now be more amenable to shutting down costly youth prisons.
Meanwhile, economic times could not be tougher for New York’s county governments. Take Erie County, home to Buffalo in the state’s northwest corner. There, county leaders cut the 2021 budget by more than 5% and slashed 246 county jobs.
But there’s at least one high-end line item the county executive doesn’t control: the sky-high outlay for state-run youth prisons, which runs between $531 and $638 a day for each young person in detention. With 32 Erie County youth in these lockups at the end of 2019, according to state figures, that works out to close to $20,000 a day that the county owed the state.
Counties are responsible for about a quarter of the cost of these facilities, which serve youth given longer sentences. The burgeoning costs are mostly attributed to low occupancy rates, amid dramatic drops in youth crime over decades.
The portion counties have contributed to the cost of juvenile lockups was burdensome well before the coronavirus pandemic decimated local budgets. In Wyoming County, next-door to Erie, social services Commissioner Kimberley Barber noted in her 2020 budget narrative that the county had two youth in “limited-secure” facilities — part of the network of state youth prisons. But even the cost for just two youth, she wrote, “will be a huge impact on our budget.”
Barber didn’t respond to requests for comment, and her budget narrative doesn’t specify the cost. At the most recent state rates, the county would have been charged a combined total of between $1,062 and $1,276 a day for those two young people.
In Onondaga County, the latest state figures at the end of 2019 showed 14 kids in state lockups, or more than $8,000 a day. Cayuga County had one youth in a lockup at the end of 2019 at a cost of $638 a day.
But eliminating the 10 remaining youth prisons and replacing them with housing for serious and violent offenders in local communities would require a change in state law, and state and county leaders willing to create alternatives — both issues with many potential obstacles.
Under current state law known as Raise the Age, 16- and 17-year-olds sentenced to more than a year must be held in state-run secure facilities. And juvenile justice reforms of the past have met pushback from local governments concerned about assuming new financial burdens and the difficulty of establishing new secure detention centers.
Paul Kubala, Erie County’s deputy commissioner for youth services, for example, said in an interview “the system is good the way it is right now.”
Kubala added that if youth who had committed more serious crimes and received sentences of more than a year were kept in the county, local detention facilities might run out of space.
Gladys Carrión, commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services from 2007 to 2014, said she heard similar concerns during her tenure, that included an array of juvenile justice reforms and closure of two of New York’s 12 youth prisons. Some local leaders objected to the idea of the most serious juvenile offenders living in their communities, and preferred having the option of sending them to far flung regions.
Carrión said in light of such opposition, she is skeptical that current legislators have the political will to shutter more detention facilities.
But now, with the state’s budget in deep crisis and a new Democratic supermajority in both legislative chambers, some political observers say the climate for considering the shuttering of youth prisons may be more favorable.
Signs can already be found in New York’s adult system. On Dec. 21, the state’s corrections department announced cost-saving measures that involved the closure of three adult prisons by March 30.
Legislators interviewed for this story said they’re determined to take action on youth lockups as well.
Newly elected Assembly member Phara Souffrant Forest (D), a nurse and tenant rights activist, is among the lawmakers saying the state must create alternatives to the costly juvenile prison model, and she said she is committed to prioritizing the issue in the next session of the Legislature. Souffrant Forrest wants to see any money saved put back into services and support.
“We need to be thinking about reinvesting in our communities,” she said. “So it’s not just shutting down juvenile detention centers but then reinvesting that money to make sure we don’t need juvenile facilities.”
Assembly member Solages, a third-term legislator, said Raise the Age did not go far enough because, among other provisions, it continued the requirement that teens sentenced to longer terms be housed in state-run youth prisons. “Now,” she added, “I think we as a society realize that this is not working — financially morally, or ethically.”
The Imprint reached out to 25 other state legislators, including eight newly elected Democrats, who either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.
Attorney Kate Rubin, a director at the legal defense and advocacy organization Youth Represent, takes inspiration from the 2012 Close to Home state law that resulted in most New York City juvenile offenders being housed locally. Rubin said that law shows it’s possible to place kids who have committed even the most serious offenses in smaller, community-based settings, while keeping the public safe.
A 2019, pre-pandemic report from the Columbia University Justice Lab noted that after Close to Home passed, juvenile arrest rates continued declining as New York City created more home-like programs. The programs were closely supervised, but offered intensive services that relied on physical restraints only as a last resort.
Still, bringing kids home to upstate counties from state facilities would require funding for “a thick array of services” and family therapy, Rubin said. There are thousands of such offerings in New York City, but they can be scant in other parts of the state.
Local courts would also have to make a “cultural change,” she added, with prosecutors and judges willing to consider alternatives to locking kids up.
Though he supports the current system, Deputy Commissioner Kubala said Erie County recognizes that keeping kids out of detention is ultimately better for them, and for the taxpayers.
Since January 2019, his county has diverted more than a thousand youth charged with offenses to alternative programs. “That's a big savings right there,” he said. “If we can get those kids home with services that is obviously a lot more cost effective.”