Amid a long-running national campaign to keep children out of locked detention centers, the New York state government this week finalized plans to shutter two of its juvenile facilities.
The vote in the Legislature overcame opposition from some Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and represents a scaled-back version of the governor’s desire to shut four facilities this year with soaring costs and a dwindling number of detained youth.
The $212 billion budget authorizes the state’s Office of Children and Family Services to close the Red Hook Residential Center and the Columbia Secure Center for Girls, both located in the Hudson Valley north of New York City, as long as the agency provides six-month advance notice to legislative leaders.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) had initially proposed closing four of the state’s 12 facilities in his initial January budget plan for the 2022 fiscal year, including another lower-security center similar to Red Hook, and a second higher-security lockup, both located downstate. The governor’s office described them as “chronically underfilled,” with only 50 youth populating 142 beds; their closure would save taxpayers an estimated $36 million in operating and capital costs.
“We should be celebrating the fact that we are able to close juvenile confinement facilities,” commissioner of Children and Family Services Sheila Poole urged skeptical lawmakers from both parties during a February budget hearing. “We’ve done a lot in diversion, we’ve raised the age of criminal responsibility, our number of kids in care is down, and it is not a bad thing when we are shrinking our physical footprint of juvenile confinement facilities.”
Poole said youth living in facilities set for closure come from more than a dozen counties statewide, and would be moved to similar detention centers closer to their homes, or to group homes run by community-based agencies. Some youth, she suggested in her testimony, could also be released to receive services from home.
The closures, “are a reflection of us doing what we are asked to do,” she said, “which is try and have young people remain with their families in their communities and taking advantage of services.”
In addition to the two detention centers the Legislature agreed this week to shutter in 2021, Gov. Cuomo’s January plan would also have closed the Goshen Secure Center and the Brentwood Residential Center. Poole’s office did not respond to emails this week seeking clarification on whether the administration still planned to close those facilities next year.
Aligned with national trends, the number of young people held in locked facilities in New York shrank roughly in half over the past decade, with arrests of those younger than 16 dropping 70%. As these populations shrank, the per-person cost of detaining youth in New York exploded, reaching nearly $1 million a year per child for some facilities.
The two closures approved this week mark more than a decade of effort to shrink New York’s juvenile detention system, due to not only costs but troubling conditions inside. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into inhumane treatment of youth. And within the next decade, New York closed 26 facilities.
Some have since been reopened to accommodate an influx of 16- and 17-year-olds who were barred from adult prisons after passage of the “Raise the Age” reform law in 2017. But lawmakers such as state Sen. Luis Sepúlveda (D) have called the per-youth annual costs in remaining facilities “outrageous.”
A coalition of youth advocacy groups that supported Raise the Age, including the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, approved of the governor’s earlier proposal to close four facilities. The organizations based their support on research on the hazards of locking kids up, including its negative effect on their education and health outcomes.
In a statement released Thursday, the Raise the Age coalition applauded the governor and Legislature for agreeing on just two closures this year, but said the plan doesn’t go far enough moving detention funding toward services for youth and families.
“The final budget fails to reinvest the millions of dollars of savings associated with these closures and missed the opportunity to close two additional youth prisons on the accelerated timeline included in the executive budget proposal,” the coalition stated.
Yet, some New York state lawmakers expressed concerns over any proposed closures, due to the loss of union jobs in their communities or the possibility of youth being sent further from home if there are fewer facilities to house them.
The Times-Herald Record of upstate New York reported this week that local lawmakers including state Sen. James Skoufis (D) “fought like hell” to keep the facilities open. He and Sen. Mike Martucci (R), the outlet reported, worked with unions that represent the detention facilities’ employees in their districts, including the Public Employees Federation and Civil Service Employees Association, who rallied outside the Goshen Secure Center in Orange County in opposition to its possible closure.
For now, Goshen and the Brentwood center on Long Island will stay open this year at least. Skoufis said that means hundreds of jobs saved.