As a legally binding deadline approaches, Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center must prepare for one of its biggest challenges yet: admitting older teens facing felony charges.
The center on Velasko Road in Syracuse is facing a balancing act. It must hire enough qualified workers to meet state law requirements while efficiently caring for an ever-shifting population of young residents.
Raise the Age, a law signed by New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April 2017, reclassifies 16- and 17-year-olds as minors in the state’s criminal justice system and prohibits them from being housed in county jails.
Starting Monday, juvenile detention facilities like Hillbrook will accept some 16-year-olds awaiting trial on felony charges, said Damian Pratt, Hillbrook’s director of juvenile justice and detention services, at an Onondaga County Legislature committee meeting. In October 2019, the facility will also start admitting 17-year-olds.
In the coming months, Hillbrook needs to fill at least 15 new positions, Pratt said.
In calculating the number of new hires, Hillbrook must account for frequent changes in the number of residents as teens are admitted for pre-trial detention and depart after their trials, according to county legislature minutes.
The number of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested on felony charges decreased by 27 percent between 2013 and 2017. Casey Jordan, a Republican legislator from Clay, said in an interview before the meeting that he’s worried Hillbrook might overestimate its future population and overhire, wasting taxpayer dollars.
“You don’t want to have staff to address the maximum number of children that would be there – you want to have optimal staffing,” Jordan said.
Pratt said that hiring part-time staff allows Hillbrook to handle resident spikes, and that he would prefer to hire more employees than he needs.
Madeleine Davison | Staff Writer
At last week’s meeting, one county legislator raised concerns that new personnel won’t be equipped to deal with one of the county’s most vulnerable populations. State law requires that direct care staff and unit supervisors in secure juvenile detention centers have at least a high school diploma and several years of experience working with youth. Legislator Ken Bush Jr. said these requirements sounded “minimal.”
“I got the sense that (Hillbrook) might try to hire somebody that they think might have potential and then try to train them,” Bush said in an interview.
Pratt said in an interview that, to weed out candidates prohibited from working with minors, Hillbrook conducts background checks for prospective hires, fingerprints them and runs them through the state’s Staff Exclusion List.
These measures are meant in part to protect youth from physical and sexual abuse. Nearly 8 percent of detained youth say they’ve been sexually abused by facility staff, according to a 2012 Bureau of Justice statistics report.
“I can’t recall a finding of abuse or neglect at any point,” said Pratt, who has worked at Hillbrook since 2016, although “allegations have been made in the past.”
Pratt said new employees are trained on the provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and new residents are told what their rights are and how to report abuse. New employees, he said, are never alone with residents until they have completed several months of training.
Hillbrook will begin to require that at least two staff be present in each area of the facility during waking hours, according to legislature meeting minutes.
After hearing what Pratt said in the meeting and touring the facility, Democratic legislator Chris Ryan of Syracuse said he thinks Onondaga County is “ahead of the curve” in preparing for Raise the Age.
“I’m confident that (Hillbrook will) get the people that they need,” Ryan said after the meeting. “I’m very, very pleased to hear that their facility is going to be ready to accept the additional (residents).”