County leaders in New York have long complained there are not enough secure detention facilities to house teenagers accused of crimes and awaiting trial.
But state officials now say increased capacity could be years away.
In a previously unreported letter sent last week to local officials, Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole says her state agency “anticipates that the expansions across the state over the next three years will be sufficient to meet the needs.”
Pandemic-driven delays in construction, staffing shortages and lengthy pretrial stays for adolescent offenders have slowed down the ability to create more bed space, Poole’s letter stated.
New York’s landmark Raise the Age law took effect in full almost three years ago, diverting the vast majority of 16- and 17-year-olds accused of crimes out of the adult criminal system. Those teens’ cases are now typically heard in Family Court, where they are offered access to more rehabilitative services. And rather than being sent to adult jails while they await trial, they are detained in youth-only facilities.
Yet county leaders argue that the law has been poorly implemented, resulting in “severely negative consequences.” Too often, beds in locked facilities are not available near the arrested youth’s home counties, according to a letter sent this month to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul. Local officials say as a result, “high-risk” adolescents who need the most secure, “specialized” lockups are instead being released under inadequate supervision by a probation officer.
“Today, counties either have to transport youth far from home while they await trial, or the youth remains free in their community after having been charged with serious crimes that include murder, attempted murder, rape and robbery — many of which included the use of guns,” states an Aug. 8 letter signed by representatives of New York’s Association of Counties, State County Executives Association and the State Council of Probation Administrators. “Both scenarios, which are common occurrences in many jurisdictions, are a direct result of the state not being fully prepared for this hastily implemented legislation and its mandate that counties be solely responsible for detention.”
Numerous media reports have highlighted challenges to confronting New York’s juvenile justice system during the pandemic: reports of violence in Monroe County’s juvenile detention center last year, inaccessible and unspent state funding for youth detention alternatives, and lack of COVID-19 testing in state-run youth facilities.
In a response obtained by The Imprint, Commissioner Poole stated that she sympathizes with the counties’ challenges, and that the state has long recognized the Raise the Age law would require “investments in capital projects to increase bed capacity and modernize facilities.” She also noted that the average length of stay in detention for youth accused of serious crimes had doubled.
But additional facility space may not be quickly available to meet any immediate housing needs. In her Aug. 18 response to the counties, Poole — whose agency regulates, funds and closely monitors all county-run pretrial juvenile detention — states its commitment to adding roughly 150 “both secure and specialized secure” detention beds over a three-year timeline.
In the meantime, state officials say they are working on an automated statewide system to locate beds and provide incentives to attract and retain facility staff. Poole’s letter added that her agency “continually assists counties, courts and law enforcement to locate detention beds for youth, often late at night and on weekends.”
New facility space for pretrial detention of teenagers has been in the works since 2018 in Albany, Monroe, Suffolk, and Westchester counties. The beds being added are expected to serve youth statewide, including those sent by a group of 11 counties in central New York that have no secure facilities of their own.
“The state and counties had anticipated that several of these projects would have been nearing completion, however the COVID-19 pandemic set the work back,” reads the state’s letter to counties. “Despite these setbacks, OCFS anticipates that the expansions across the state over the next three years will be sufficient.”
Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare at the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter, said teens should not be sent far from their homes and communities. But she noted that adding more beds in locked facilities should be the result of careful consideration.
“As we start investing in more detention beds,” Davis said, “we need a deeper inquiry into how specialized secure detention beds are being used and the other resources that should be available in every community, for every teenager, including an alternative to detention programs and community supervision.”
Meanwhile, local reports from Nassau and Suffolk counties have described sheriff’s deputies driving teenagers awaiting trial for seven hours or more to larger facilities such as the Erie County Youth Services Center in Buffalo. That has made it difficult for their lawyers and family members to maintain vital contact.
“We were horrified to hear that these young people, between the ages of 16 and 18, were transported away so far from their families and community,” public safety committee Chair Denise Ford (D), a Nassau County state lawmaker, told a Newsday reporter.
Fewer arrests, but detention is up
Despite the local concerns, juvenile arrests in New York declined in 2021 relative to 2020, state data show. Last year, about 3,300 youth ages 16 and 17 were arrested for the most serious offenses, including felony gun, robbery, assault and homicide charges. That is 11% less than the previous year, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Despite the drop in arrests, 661 teens were admitted to juvenile detention facilities, a 13% increase from the previous year.
Capacity shortages worsened last year when the state forced Westchester County to close its only specialized secure detention center, Woodfield Cottage. The closure was preceded by a girl’s escape in October 2021, resulting in the Office of Children and Family Services and the state’s Commission of Correction revoking the facility’s permit to hold adolescent offenders in its newly built east and west wings. The buildings were later found to have “non-detention grade” doors, and windows that could be removed during an escape, according to court filings.
Top county officials propose other solutions, including a real-time list of facilities with open beds, reopening shuttered state detention facilities, and placing some adolescent offenders in former adult prisons.
They offered as an example the Hudson Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison 40 miles south of Albany in the Hudson River Valley that, until 2020, housed 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls on 50 acres surrounded by a “double fenced chain-link area,” and a security monitoring system, according to an audit report. Auditors noted that “staff worked interchangeably at the adult and youthful areas of the facility.” Still, the facility met the state’s “sight and sound” requirements that teens be physically separated from adults.
In an interview, Luci Welch, the probation director for Orleans County, said that after talking with the Office of Children and Family Services, she and her colleagues were now seeking help from the governor. Welch said they aren’t necessarily looking to build entirely new facilities. Instead, they want to reopen or repurpose existing secure sites.
Welch added that “when we started to experience problems and the builds weren’t happening and the beds were getting scarce,” it became logical to look at existing facilities. “They would probably be cheaper for the state to modify than a new build.”
The letter sent from county officials to the state included a list of alleged crimes committed by adolescent offenders, the county they came from, and if they were released on probation or placed in a detention center. Welch said the county representatives called the spreadsheet an “informal survey” and included it in the letter to show that the state is “experiencing difficulties with getting detention beds” for violent offenders.
But state officials pushed back on the spreadsheet data, stating that it showed “unfortunate instances where a bed was not available for a youth with very serious charges for serious offenders. However, for the vast majority of data on the spreadsheet, we are unable to determine if detention was requested, needed, or unavailable, and if the alternatives to detention were or were not successful in maintaining a youth in the community.”
Correction 8/25/22: This story has been updated to remove a reference to the Hudson Valley adult prison that was previously described from an interview with county probation officials.