New York City could be a leader in juvenile justice reform

But first the city has to implement Raise the Age legislation on time.

Deep inside the Manhattan headquarters of the Administration for Children’s Services on the morning of July 24, a contract with deep implications for the future of juvenile justice nationwide quietly moved forward.

An upcoming contract between the agency and the nonprofit Missouri Youth Services Institute had its public hearing that day before one reporter and two ACS staffers. One of the staffers read a pro forma description of the contract into a cassette recorder. And just like that, the years’ long effort to move teens out of the adult prison system moved one step forward – with less than nine weeks remaining for the city to implement Raise the Age legislation.

It’s expected to take an additional two months to register the three-year, $1.8 million contract – which means it would take effect just days before the October deadline despite its April 1, 2018 start date. This contract will play an important role in implementing Raise the Age because MYSI will train ACS and nonprofit contractor staff in the finer points of the Missouri Model, an approach to juvenile justice that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. All of this will play a critical role in transforming New York City into a nationwide leader in juvenile justice, Mark Steward, founder and director of the Missouri Youth Services Institute, said in a telephone interview.

“I would say New York City is right at the forefront,” he said.

That new distinction would be a marked contrast to the laws and policies that previously defined New York’s juvenile justice system – a system that mostly mixed teens in with the adult population on Rikers Island or far away from home in upstate facilities when MSYI first started consulting with the city about five years ago. Many juveniles had also been subjected to trauma of solitary confinement, most notably in the case of Kalief Browder.

“Instead of being the cop on the beat with the nightstick or the mace in the facility it just changes the whole way of doing business,” Steward said of the model developed during his 17-year tenure overseeing Missouri’s Division of Youth Services. “It’s diffusing. It’s getting to the issues. It’s coming to the youth with: ‘We’re here to help you. We’re not here to hurt you.’”

Whether the city will be able to implement such a model by the October deadline is unclear. Only about one-fifth of the 200 youth development specialists needed by ACS have been officially hired, according to a spokeswoman. Background checks on some 158 people are currently “in the process.”

The staff-to-youth ratio implemented in Missouri juvenile facilities may be what’s largely responsible for the success of the Missouri Model, according to a March analysis by the Denver Post. It also states more empirical research is needed in order to ascertain the overall effectiveness of the model and how it affects youth recidivism rates over time.

In the meantime, advertisements and community outreach continue to seek more applicants. Once hired they receive six weeks of training, including one week with MYSI consultants.

But there may not be enough specialists in place by the October 1 deadline for the city to remove all offenders younger than 18 from the adult facilities on Riker Island. The city is rushing to get the Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx ready by then, but earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to say whether the city would meet the deadline, PIX 11 reported.

The mayor blamed the state for potential delays, suggesting difficulties with getting state permission to use the Ella McQueen facility in Brooklyn as an intake center. The Crossroads facility in Brownsville, Brooklyn would also house juvenile offenders as part of Raise the Age efforts.


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