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.

2) Arrange for juveniles to complete sentences closer to their home. The current state system is too large and too costly. The U.S. Department of Justice obtained federal monitoring of four OCFS facilities after determining that New York State had violated the constitutional rights of youth at those facilities. Before the state investigation and monitoring, Commissioner Gladys Carrion, in her short tenure, had already identified and had been working diligently to correct the inadequacies of the system. One way to better manage the system is to give authorities the authority to operate juvenile facilities under state supervision. Adjudicated juvenile delinquents and juvenile offenders can be placed in facilities in the counties that they are from. This is a particular issue in New York City where an overwhelming number of juveniles are placed in facilities far away from their families and their communities. Authorize New York City to manage facilities. Stop using downstate children to drive upstate economies.

3) Make it easier to close prisons that are empty or far underutilized. The Tryon Boys Residential Center is completely empty, yet it employs 30 staff members. This kind of situation is becoming all too common. Even if there are a high number of empty beds or facilities that are close to empty, closure of such facilities face protracted delays. Local counties subsidize those empty beds and current state law requires empty facilities to remain open for at least a year.

Our current system of juvenile justice is an injustice to taxpayers and, more significantly, the children we should be serving. Instead of making society safe or rehabilitating individuals, we are maintaining a prison-industrial complex that uses children as a vehicle for profit to create and maintain jobs for adults. The stories of children who become involved with the criminal justice system are numerous. We have the responsibility to ensure that individuals obey the law and have penalties for those who break them. Yet we also have to give people, juveniles in particular, an opportunity to become productive citizens once they have paid their debt to society. Otherwise we reduce the chances of these same children becoming effective and productive members of society.