I-Team 10 investigation: Juvenile justice

Posted at: 05/14/2013 5:49 AM
Updated at: 05/14/2013 11:16 PM
By: Brett Davidsen

The governor is moving young criminals out of state-run juvenile justice centers. It's designed to save taxpayers millions, but is it creating a public safety threat?

An I-Team 10 investigation takes a closer look at a state program that has re-located juvenile delinquents into group homes. The state says it's better for the kids and it is saving money for taxpayers. But I-Team 10 learned that dozens of juveniles have gone AWOL from the program since it started last year.

For the past two years, the governor has been shutting down juvenile facilities with low occupancy rates and transferring those kids into community-based settings. But are the cost-savings worth what one judge described as a potential threat to public safety.

When Governor Cuomo delivered his first State of the State Address, he made it clear he was targeting waste in juvenile justice centers.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said, "An incarceration program is not an employment program."

According to a state report on spending and government efficiency, it was costing taxpayers $283,000 annually for each teen in one of these facilities. The governor concluded that many of the centers were operating well below capacity and were being kept open primarily to keep state workers employed.

Governor Cuomo said, "Don't put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. "

Governor Cuomo swiftly closed four of the juvenile facilities and downsized four more. Among those impacted, the Industry Residential Center in Rush. The secure facility was closed and the limited-secure portion was reduced from 90 beds to 50 beds.

Lt. Governor Bob Duffy said, "It makes no sense to fully staff a facility that has very low occupancy rate and what the governor is trying to do is look at a much more decentralized process that is cheaper."

That decentralized process includes an initiative called "Close to Home." The reform plan removes troubled downstate teens from non-secure facilities upstate and places them with contracted not-for-profit agencies in New York City, closer to their families. The governor would eventually like to expand the program to include upstate juveniles. The state says the program has saved taxpayers $12 million. But some are saying it's also putting dangerous young criminals back on the streets.

Last month, a family court judge in Queens issued this opinion about the "Close to Home Initiative." He said it was creating a "potential threat to public safety" after learning that many of the juveniles had gone AWOL from their group homes. He noted that in early March, as many as 50 of the program's participants, or about one in four juveniles, were reportedly unaccounted for. The judge added, "the problems in this decision should be addressed promptly before tragedy befalls a juvenile or an innocent citizen."

Susan Kent, Public Employees Federation President, said, “This is an ill-gotten plan that the state is rolling out and it's coming back to haunt them now."

I-Team 10 spoke with Susan Kent, President of the State Public Employees Federation, about the "Close to Home" shortcomings.

Kent said, “These youth have committed crimes. Now my members are in the business of trying to rehabilitate them, but these youth need to be in secure places where they're going to get the services and help they need. And this is not what's happening."

The governor's office would not provide a response to those criticisms Tuesday, referring I-Team 10 instead to the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. It says "Close to Home" is saving taxpayers money while improving outcomes for children. The agency also says it is working closely with the New York City agency overseeing the program to address any public safety concerns that may arise.

Rochester Police Union President Michael Mazzeo says any savings in closing juvenile centers is a lost when police then have to use resources to track down non-compliant kids. Further, he says you only need to look to Officer Anthony DiPonzio to understand the potential dangers. 14-year-old Tyquan Rivera was AWOL from a local group home when he shot and seriously injured DiPonzio.

Mazzeo said, “Maybe you can show on some type of spreadsheet line that we closed this facility and saved this amount of money. But how do you equate that to what the costs are going to be and what we're going to be dealing with these individuals out on the streets."

On the issue of public safety, state officials say the young people in the program have generally been determined to not pose a threat, having come from non-secure residences after coming minor delinquent acts. The most serious offenders remain in secure facilities operated by the state.

In the meantime, the lieutenant governor hinted that the downsizing of juvenile justice isn't over, saying he expects there will be more closures.

According to the city agency that oversees the program, 45% of kids that are running away from these homes are returning the same day and about two-thirds are back within 48 hours. An official there says that many are leaving to see their families and it is their families that are returning them.