With a looming budget deficit and youth lockups with dozens of empty beds, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration plans to shut two juvenile detention facilities.
The governor’s 2022 budget briefing book notes that four state youth facilities are “chronically underfilled,” housing a total of 50 young people in places that can hold almost triple that number. Two of the four are secure lockups: the Columbia Girls Secure Center in Columbia County and the Goshen Secure Center in Orange County. They’re part of the state’s network of 10 youth prisons located from the Hudson River in the east to Rochester in the west.
An Imprint story in November noted that the per-person cost of housing youth in those facilities, run by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), has hit almost $900,000 a year. That makes New York’s youth lockups the most costly in the nation. The closures announced last week, and reported in the Times Herald-Record, will save the state almost $22 million a year and $14 million in capital investments.
The Democratic governor’s proposal is likely to get caught in a cross-current of expectations — from those advocating that the money saved be reinvested in youth services, to unions and legislators who will want to protect local jobs in state facilities whatever the cost.
Advocates don’t want all of those savings to be rerouted to filling the state’s budget deficit. They’ve long pushed to house young people in facilities closer to their homes instead of in far-off state placements.
Attorney Kate Rubin, a director at the legal defense and advocacy organization Youth Represent, applauded the governor for proposing the closures. But she also wants to see the money used to improve the lives of kids and the neighborhoods they grow up in — prevention efforts that will steer them away from entanglements with law enforcement. “It is equally crucial to invest the dollars saved in youth of color who have been overrepresented in the juvenile justice system and disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” she said in an email to The Imprint.
The closures won’t affect the number of youth who are locked up. In a statement to the Times Herald-Record, the Office of Children and Family Services noted that youth placed at the facilities slated for closure would be “transferred to another OCFS facility or residential program as close to their home as possible.”
Other stakeholders include workers who stand to lose jobs at closed facilities — and possibly upstate legislators in the districts where the detention facilities are located. A union that represents employees at all four facilities slated for shutdown denounced the decision. “While we understand the fiscal crisis faced by the state, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the time to increase patient or staff density within the system,” said Rob Merrill, spokesperson for the New York State Public Employees Federation, by email.
In its statement to the Times Herald-Record, OCFS noted that it would work with workers and their unions to prioritize displaced employees for job openings at other state facilities or agencies.
A spokesperson for Republican state Sen. Sue Serino, whose district covers one of the facilities the governor is proposing to be slashed, said she will ask administration officials about the move at an upcoming hearing.
"I govern by listening, and I anxiously await the upcoming budget hearing to hear additional details about this proposal and its justification,” she stated in an email to The Imprint. “That said, we need to be sure the state does not inadvertently create an 'OCFS desert.'”
Hernán Carvente Martinez, held at the state’s Brookwood Secure Center from 2008 to 2012, wants to see the governor work with formerly incarcerated youth and their families to come up with a plan to reuse the dollars saved. Carvente Martinez is now a strategist for the Youth First Initiative, which seeks to end youth incarceration. The next step, he said, should be to “use the savings to keep young people close to home, with community-based supports, and away from prisonlike environments as a whole.”