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Why Is New York's Juvenile Justice System Still Such a Disaster?

Good intentions from lawmakers aren't doing a lot to help the city's troubled kids.

by Kenneth Rosen
Jun 4 2015, 8:20pm

Photo via JoshuaDavisPhotography

Young boys and girls born into poverty and domestic strife in New York City don't exactly cruise into their teens. Because of the tough conditions in which they're raised, they wind up wandering into the margins by way of an illegal act or an illicit drug.

Many get stuck with a criminal record for life.

"When your mind is warped, this is all you know," said 28-year-old Fredrick Coleman from the Bronx, who spent his teenage years and much of his 20s incarcerated. "You neglect everything else."

When his younger brother fell into the criminal justice system, Coleman tried in earnest to keep him out of public shelters—notorious as harbingers of even more criminality than jail, according to industry professionals interviewed for this story. Given the opportunity, many would prefer jail over public shelters, former inmates told me.

Coleman's brother applied to the Doe Foundation's Ready, Willing, Able program—the men-in-blue street cleaners regularly visible around Manhattan—but was initially rejected. Coleman, however, got in, and soon was able to begin rebuilding his life.

In an effort to reduce the incarceration rate of juvenile offenders, three years ago then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the creation of the Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience, a city initiative focused on training and expanding educational opportunities to reduce the likelihood of juveniles with records committing more crimes. Nicknamed ABLE, it is one of several programs operating in the city that face an ongoing struggle to curtail the rise of youth re-incarceration.

Last year, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo joined the party by appointing members to a panel—the New York Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice—to provide concrete, actionable recommendations for the state's juvenile justice system.

The idea was simple: The state's age of adult criminality responsibility is too low, and at best archaic; New York is the only state besides North Carolina that still tries minors as adults at age 16 or 17. Along with many youth advocacy groups, Cuomo has acknowledged this policy does more harm than good, including in an op-ed last week in the New York Daily News.

But little has happened since the panel's founding, even if Cuomo says he wants to change the law. Meanwhile, good intentions aren't doing much to help troubled kids.

"There are not sufficient reentry support systems for young people," said Susan Gottesfeld, associate executive director at the Osborne Association, a service provider for ABLE that works directly with former juvenile inmates as part of the Young Men's Initiative, an NYC program for black and Hispanic youth. "It's one of the barriers that we face as an agency, one the system faces in general. There's not sufficient discharge planning and reentry case-management services to get them reconnected."

A report released in April by the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services stated that between January and December of last year, juvenile arrests in NYC declined to 6,068 from 7,604 a year earlier. The average daily population of juvenile detention centers decreased 17 percent compared with 2013, or from 255 juvenile admissions to 213.

But more than half of juveniles with a prior record will go on to commit another crime, a result, some in the industry say, of poor funding and resources spread too thin.

In the Young Men's Program, another Doe initiative for black and Latino youth, half of participants lost the jobs they were placed in within six months. Meanwhile, other young offenders are referred to programs within the city Administration for Children's Services that operate similarly to jails and prisons, according to Alexander Horwitz, a spokesman for Doe.

At most reentry programs, there is no standard metric for gauging success. Many measure the effectiveness of short- and long-term job employment or educational achievement in monthly to yearly increments, usually ending after two years, the point at which agencies generally cease monitoring former residents or offenders.

"They are pathways to the adult system," said Stanley Richards, senior vice president at the Fortune Society's Academy who just got a new gig on the NYC Board of Correction, which oversees local jails. Also known as the Castle, the Academy offers housing, alternatives to incarceration, job training and placement programs, rehabilitation services, and is one of several such programs trying to take a misdirected young person and return him to society somewhat healed.

Another effort is Drive Change, a reentry program that offers formerly incarcerated juveniles employment and training on operating a food truck. "There are so many variables in a person's life that contribute to whether or not they are" reincarcerated post release, Jordyn Lexton, the founder of Drive Change, said in an email. "Any metric given by any organization is simply going to be a comparison between people going through their program and people who don't."

Lexton spent three years teaching English on Rikers Island, and worked elsewhere in the at-risk youth industry before developing the approach Drive Change takes to reentry development. That includes "industry specific training that produces licenses/credentials, transferable skill learning, paid-quality employment, community development and self-esteem growth," she said.

During a management meeting on a balmy day in March, the animated conversation blurred between personal cooking and business, both of which the staff had little experience in before they were hired.

Coleman sat among them in an unfinished room at the former Pfizer plant in Brooklyn, now home to the company's headquarters, a bay of windows looking out over public housing and mixed brownstones dappling the horizon. Off quietly to the side, Jaquial Jackson, another of the program's initial members and a former inmate, sat around in a semicircle sketching a rough food truck on a loose piece of paper.

"We're one of the few companies that want you to have a felony conviction," said Roy Waterman, 38, the director of programs for Drive Change, himself a former inmate. "I know what it's like to go through what they're going through."

The newly-admitted classes of formerly incarcerated juveniles to start this spring are untried, the first of their kind—much like the program itself, which launched last year.

But in their efforts to build a sustainable business model around the burgeoning food truck industry, the aim of Drive Change is to refashion the lives of young men in NYC, offering them purpose and reason to begin anew.

It's a welcome approach to a system in need of more attention and vigilant restructuring.

Follow Kenneth Rosen on Twitter.

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