Juvenile justice reform needed
THE REV. ASSEMBLYMAN KARIM CAMARA | 4/12/2011, 4:44 p.m.
The current and much-publicized news story of Afrika Owes, the 17-year-old young lady from Harlem who was arrested and is being prosecuted for her alleged involvement with a group of drug dealers called the 137th Street Crew, provokes a much-needed conversation about our state juvenile justice system.
Owes' story caught the attention of the media because she was a student at one of the country's prestigious boarding schools and was a member of the youth choir and youth ministry of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church. Whether or not Owes is indeed guilty of a crime is being determined by the legal process. Although it is her particular story that is attracting attention at this moment, the story of young people accused of committing crimes, becoming involved with the juvenile justice system and making mistakes that potentially have lifetime consequences is too familiar. The state's juvenile justice system has a responsibility to maintain public safety and to rehabilitate the juveniles under its supervision. The problem is that it is grossly ineffective at both. Our current system of juvenile justice is failing children and society and is in need of a drastic overhaul.
Fortunately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services understand that the current correction-based model, which punishes more then it rehabilitates and wastes taxpayer dollars, needs to be reformed. The governor notably said in his first State of the State address that "I understand the importance of keeping jobs--that does not justify the burden on the taxpayer and the violation of the civil rights of the young person who is in a program that they don't need, where they are not being treated, hundreds of miles from their home just to save state jobs. An incarceration program is not an employment program." Hopefully under his leadership it will soon be time to overcome the political obstacles that choose to maintain dysfunction in the name of providing jobs.
The reform of the system will not happen overnight. There are fundamental measures that we should begin to make a part of the system.
1) Utilize alternative forms of punishment for low-risk and non-violent youth and focus on community programs that educate and rehabilitate.
Some label the idea of finding alternatives as being "soft" on crime, and go so far as to argue that it makes our streets less safe. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Overwhelming research shows exactly the opposite. Forcing juveniles to serve time in ineffective, mismanaged facilities increases recidivism, adding an unnecessary burden on communities.
The Vera Institute for Justice estimates that more than 1,600 youth enter New York State's institutional placement facilities each year ("Charting a New Course: A Blueprint for Transforming Juvenile Justice in New York State"). It is in their opinion that incarcerating thousands of children in facilities, many of which resemble adult prisons, harms children, wastes money and endangers the public.
The facts back their assertion. The estimated annual cost of sending a child to an institutional placement facility is $298,271. With the amount of money we are spending to incarcerate we would get much better use of the state's money by sending them to an Ivy League school--instead of the money going towards one student, we could send five young people to Harvard. The chance of them being re-arrested and returning to the system would be close to zero. The current state data shows that 81 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls are re-arrested within three years of being released from a state facility. The problem is not just the financial cost. These high rates of recidivism have a long-term negative impact on the communities that these children live in. It is in the best interest of the state and the community, if a youthful offender is non-violent, that the state be resolved to educating and rehabilitating that individual.