Cuomo’s juvenile justice mistake: Proposing to defund Close to Home
When Jeremy Taveras was 16 years old, back in 2012, he was arrested for gang-related activity. Things were turbulent at home, and he was struggling in school.
A Family Court judge ordered that Jeremy be placed in a program that was new at the time, known as Close to Home. And so he lived not far from the community where he grew up, in a supervised house with several other adolescents who had been charged with similar crimes, received tailored counseling and attended a school for youth involved in the justice system.
Jeremy’s family was able to visit him regularly, and he moved back home after several months.
Before Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature created the Close to Home program in 2012, Jeremy would have been sent to a state-run facility, likely hundreds of miles upstate. Whatever school credits he earned wouldn’t have easily transferred to the New York City Department of Education system, and his family wouldn’t have been able to visit as often.
Today, nearly five years later, Jeremy is working full-time in the juvenile justice system. He says that the Close to Home program helped him get back on track with school and his family, so that he could build a future for himself — and he wants to make sure other young people have that same chance.
Over the last five years, hundreds of young people like Jeremy have similarly benefited from this program. Unlike in the old days, when kids were routinely sent away, anyone under the age of 16 in New York City who has committed a mid-level crime or had problems in lower-level programs is now sentenced to placement in it, which is managed by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which I run.
The program has quickly become a national model for juvenile justice reform. Young people are going to school, getting good grades and passing Regents exams. Meantime, they’re getting counseling to help them manage underlying trauma and issues that contributed to their involvement in the juvenile justice system in the first place. The residences themselves are safe, and they’re helping keep communities safe. Our latest annual report on the program, issued this week, shows that 93% of young people in the program advanced at least one grade level in school, and half of the youth who took Regents exams passed.
The success of Close to Home comes at a pivotal time for juvenile justice in New York, as Raise the Age takes effect. Another key pillar of Cuomo’s vision for reforming the justice system, that’s the legislation passed in 2017 increasing the age of criminal responsibility in New York State to 18 — as it is in 48 other states.
Under Raise the Age, 16- and 17-year-olds will move out of adult prisons and into juvenile placements starting this year. Once this new policy is fully implemented, the number of young people in Close to Home will increase as the number imprisoned with adult criminals declines.
Given the governor’s positive vision for reforming juvenile justice, the remarkable success of Close to Home and the surge of young people who will need to be placed in Close to Home once Raise the Age is implemented, the state should be expanding its commitment to Close to Home this year.
Which is why it is so puzzling that Cuomo’s initial budget proposal would eliminate all state funding for Close to Home, and put the $75 million — and likely growing — burden for paying for this vital program almost entirely on the city’s shoulders.
Right now, the state provides nearly 40% of the funding for Close to Home, just as it shares the cost for juvenile justice in every county. The governor hasn’t explained why he wants New York City and New York City alone to pay nearly the full bill for this program.
But what is clear is that if the funding is cut, it will be very difficult to implement Raise the Age as planned. Everyone involved agrees that young people should participate in the community-based rehabilitation that Close to Home provides, instead of serving in adult prisons or being sent to facilities hundreds of miles away.
Over the next several weeks, as the state budget is negotiated, Cuomo and the state Legislature should continue to support Close to Home, rather than walk away from a crucial commitment just as this innovative and successful program is most needed.
Hansell is commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
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