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Unions: Cuomo Wrong On Juvenile Prisons

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (credit: AP Photo/Mike Groll, Pool)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (credit: AP Photo/Mike Groll, Pool)

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ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has cast the state’s juvenile detention system in harsh, almost Dickensian light as a violation of civil rights existing only to satisfy public employee unions.

It was his most fervent passage in last week’s State of the State address, and his New York City minority-liberal base went wild.

Cuomo said the 25 youth prisons where nearly 600 juveniles are incarcerated are ineffective, expensive and kept mainly to preserve jobs. It costs more than $200,000 a year for each juvenile, most far from their downstate homes. Nine out of 10 will later end up back in juvenile custody or prison, he said.

“The reason we continue to keep these children in these programs that aren’t serving them but are bilking the taxpayers is that we don’t want to lose the state jobs that we would lose if we closed the facilities,” Cuomo said.

“Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs!” he shouted to the crowd that soon stood applauding.

Under Commissioner Gladys Carrion’s existing policy to place more youths in community programs, 11 detention centers and five groups homes have closed since 2007, cutting 411 staff positions, according to Office of Children and Family Services. Two more will shut in two weeks, with another 251 positions cut in the current fiscal year, OCFS spokeswoman Susan Steele said.

JoAnne Page, president of the nonprofit Fortune Society that provides services to ex-prison inmates, said Cuomo’s right in that the institutions “do human damage in a very large way at very large costs.” Incarcerating a troubled kid with others even more troubled or dangerous increases their chances of “a lifetime trajectory” in the criminal justice system.

Casimiro Torres, 43, now a drug abuse clinician, said he was sent to the upstate Tryon detention center as a teenager for “burglary and stuff like that” and later prison. He said juvenile detention characterized by brutality.

“There was fighting all the time,” he said. “If you weren’t violent, you were just victimized more.”

Marsha Weissman, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives, says their 25-year-old community diversion program typically lasts six months to a year for 400 juvenile offenders in New York City and 100 in Syracuse each year. At a cost of about $10,000 a year for each offender, the program sees about 75 percent completing the program and a re-arrest rate of about 15 percent. Mental health services are separate.

Unions representing staff counter that incarcerated juveniles, many who already failed in community programs, many with psychological issues and criminal histories and some very violent, get nutrition, medical care, psychological attention and education in the state-run detention centers.

“The way the governor was characterizing it was a gross distortion of reality. We’d like to have a long conversation with him about it,” said Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the 300,000-member Civil Service Employees Association union. “The question is whether they’re being placed in appropriate settings. Renee Greco is dead because they were placed in an inappropriate setting.”

Greco, 24, was supervising troubled teens at a group home in Lockport north of Buffalo when she was bludgeoned to death by two of them in June 2009. Both are now in prison.

“These are not kids that are easily helped,” said Sherry Halbrook, spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation, which represents teachers, counselors, doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists. “He really doesn’t understand what we’re talking about here is a continuum of care for young people.”

“These children present a lot of challenges and in some case they’re dangerous,” she said. “They’re dangerous to themselves and in some cases dangerous to others.”

On Wednesday, Cuomo also called for repealing the Legislature’s requirement to provide a year’s notice before closing facilities.

Lawmakers with detention centers or prisons providing jobs in their districts have defended them.

“Any solution must balance the need to reduce state spending with the need to create good jobs,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for Senate Republicans who this year resumed majority control of that chamber.

The detention centers last week held 592 juveniles and had 376 vacant beds, and about 1,900 employees, according to OCFS. A shift in state policy and by probation and New York City officials means judges have been sending fewer young people to detention and more to community programs.

From 2001 to 2010, the state cut its residential capacity for juveniles from 2338 to 1403 beds while use dropped from 99 percent to 66 percent, according to OCFS. The agency estimates $60 million savings from closing sites the past few years.

Four centers were put under federal oversight last year with strict limits on restraining young people after Justice Department investigators found staff caused serious injuries like broken bones while routinely using force to restrain juveniles.

Meanwhile a state commission found top officials and staff at a Hudson Valley center were irresponsible when they authorized then failed to supervise a party for good behavior for four offenders — three murderers and a robber ranging in age from 17 to 20. Some of the offenders had sex with dates at the party. Unions and some legislators faulted Carrion’s policies for that incident.

According to a 13-page analysis from the Cuomo campaign, juveniles should be sent to detention as a public safety issue, solely based on their likelihood to commit new crimes. Too often, custody has been a last resort for judges who did not believe there was a reliable relative or a likelihood youths would get better treatment for drug or psychiatric issues on the outside.

Cuomo’s analysis called for a data-driven analysis of the costs and benefits while critics said it should examine outcomes if the state moves away from detention.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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