Exclusive: New York City’s Top Juvenile Justice Official Steps Down, Will Replace Jails Critic on Oversight Board

Felipe Franco Raise the Age juvenile justice Administration for Children's Serves

Felipe Franco, deputy commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice for New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, is moving to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s point person overseeing the rollout of the juvenile justice reform known as “Raise the Age” will leave his post this month to join the staff of a major foundation. He has also just been appointed to serve on the regulatory body for the city’s jails, which is voting next week on hotly contested discipline practices on Riker’s Island and elsewhere.

Felipe Franco, the deputy commissioner for the Division of Youth and Family Justice within the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), will serve a six-year term on the city’s Board of Corrections as a de Blasio appointee. Franco will also join the staff of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national grant maker focused on juvenile justice and child welfare reform.

“Under Felipe’s leadership, ACS has implemented some of the most transformative juvenile justice policies and initiatives in history, including Close to Home and Raise the Age, and we’ve positioned New York City as a national model for juvenile justice reform,” said Commissioner David Hansell in a statement e-mailed via a spokesperson. “We have a strong leadership team in place at ACS and will continue to improve the lives of children and families involved in the juvenile justice system.”

A source at ACS told The Imprint of Social Change that Hansell has identified someone to take Franco’s place on an acting basis, and the agency will conduct a national search for a permanent replacement.

On the Board of Corrections, Franco will replace an outspoken critic of the Department of Corrections’ treatment of youth and young adults. Former family court judge Bryanne Hamill has repeatedly said the department moved too slowly to eliminate the use of punitive segregation for detained young adults, voting in the minority on related issues.

The board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to advance an ambitious rule-making package covering a range of jail discipline practices and special housing units. The board may also vote on the corrections department’s request to continue using prolonged isolation for detained people who receive positive body scans in city jails. Franco, reached for comment in Seattle at the Casey Foundation’s annual Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative conference, confirmed that he will be recused from Tuesday’s votes, since he will still be a city employee with ACS.

In his separate, paid job with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Franco will serve as a senior fellow for young adult practices. Starting in early November, he “will lead cross-cutting work in partnership with Casey’s child welfare and juvenile justice units, among other Foundation units,” according to Casey spokesperson Carol Abrams. “Felipe’s work will focus at the intersection of systems to ensure that young people do not become disconnected and those that are, get reconnected as quickly as possible. He will support particular efforts around permanency for older youth in child welfare.”

Hansell concurred in his statement: “Felipe’s new role at the Annie E. Casey Foundation is a testament to the success we’ve had in New York City and I am confident that he will help jurisdictions across the country achieve that same type of success.”

New York City’s juvenile system has shrunk rapidly since Franco was hired in 2014 by former Commissioner Gladys Carrión. According to city data, youth detention admissions plummeted 32 percent through the first three fiscal years of Franco’s tenure, in line with long-running statewide trends and declining youth arrests. Franco was retained by Carrión’s successor David Hansell — appointed atop ACS in early 2017 — to continue moving the system in a rehabilitation-oriented, pro-social direction for youth.

One of the most high-profile moments of Franco’s time with ACS came after Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Raise the Age law, requiring all 16- and 17-year-olds to be moved out of the adult jail facilities on Riker’s Island by last October 1. Riker’s Department of Corrections guards followed those teens to Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx as part of a temporary joint management arrangement with ACS. A steady stream of reports soon after the transfer detailed rampant violence between guards and youth in Horizon. ACS Commissioner David Hansell has pushed back the date for ACS taking full control of the facility, and corrections guard unions continue to blast the city’s handling of the facility. City sources in Horizon told The Chronicle Franco has been on site near-daily at times to manage the situation.

“Last October was hard even with him there, so we are just going to have to be vigilant moving forward,” said one person who works with youth in Horizon. This person requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about the Bronx facility whose staff they collaborate with.

Yet, Franco’s job involved more than Horizon. He oversaw hundreds of detention beds for adjudicated youth, and dozens of programs aimed at preventing criminal behavior and diverting youth out of detention. He managed implementation of Close to Home, a renowned residential treatment program that allows judges to sentence youth to placement near their home communities. As part of Raise the Age, he also led the creation of a new position at ACS, called youth development specialists, who will staff the city’s two higher-security youth detention facilities, including Horizon.

“He developed something that may not be flashy but it’s terribly important: The new title [youth development specialist] allows New York City to hire people with justice-involved backgrounds, and upgraded salaries so we get better people working in juvenile detention,” said David Condliffe of the Center for Community Alternatives.

Unlike traditional jail guards, the specialists are being trained to serve as “role model, mentor and guide” to detained youth, according to hiring guidelines. The agency is planning to hire 700 people for the job, with a starting salary of $46,013.

“He’s been nothing short of a true pioneer in rethinking and implementing all of the reforms that we’ve done for young people in New York City, whether it’s Close to Home when he was with OCFS, reforming how New York City houses juveniles and being an advocate for Raise the Age,” said Condliffe.

According to multiple sources who attended ACS’s recently quarterly meeting with nonprofits that serve foster youth, Commissioner Hansell’s announcement of Franco’s departure took many by surprise. “A good number of people had no idea. It didn’t seem to be a secret, but ACS has been very quiet about it,” said one nonprofit executive in attendance.

John Kelly contributed reporting to this story. 

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