For juvenile justice advocates, this summer, once again, has ushered in campaigns to close the infamous Spofford Juvenile Center. Spofford, located in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, serves as a facility for youth fifteen years and younger who are either awaiting a trial or placement in a long-term youth detention center.
This fifty-year old “jail” has long been associated with harsh living conditions and poor treatment for juveniles. In 1998, New York City opened two new detention centers with the initial promise that these new centers would be replacements for Spofford. Instead, one year later, the City decided to renovate Spofford and renamed it “Bridges Juvenile Center,” hoping that perhaps with a new name and appearance, the notoriety of the address would fade.
Closing Spofford might seem like a no-brainer to many New Yorkers. After all, Spofford still does not have adequate space to offer necessary educational programs and beyond that, with the two newer under-capacity youth detention centers( Horizons, and Crossroads), closing Spofford would save our City some $14 million dollars annually. But the fact that Spofford is still being used, perhaps above all, serves as a physical manifestation of the core problem of New York’s failing juvenile justice system: a fear of embracing change and progress.
As a high school student in New York, the issue of youth justice is one that feels particularly close to me: after all, hundreds of teenagers my own age are being sent to jail daily, only to emerge more hopeless and drawn to crime. While interning at Former State Senator Schneiderman’s office and tutoring at the Andrew Glover Youth Program(an alternative to incarceration), a few blocks away from my apartment, I learned first hand how teenagers get pulled into crimes and then prison time, with very little opportunity of changing the future course of their lives.
It is terrifying, to say the least, that the future of youth my own age can be permanently sealed by decisions they made as young adolescents. Beyond the damage that a criminal record does to these underage teenagers’ educational and employment opportunities, the fact is that many of them could face time in an adult prison. As someone who, maybe naively, has always associated New York State policies with liberalism and progress, my experience with youth justice has in many ways shocked me. For example, New York currently spends more money incarcerating a minor than on his/her education! Indeed, New York at this time stands alone as one of two, if not THE state, with the least progressive juvenile justice policies in our country. While all other states have their juvenile offender laws set at age eighteen, which basically means only once a youth is eighteen or over can they be tried as an adult, New York’s juvenile offender sets the legal maximum age limit for minors at fifteen. This means that if a minor gets arrested at sixteen year or older, he or she would be tried in an adult court and could face time in an adult jail. The problem with this system is that it fails to recognize the vast fundamental differences (just think of the psychological and physical) between adults and minors.
New York needs to not only recognize the disparity between the adult and juvenile detention systems, but even more specifically needs to recognize the disparity between the distinct districts in our state. It is no coincidence that the majority of youth detained are those from the poorest districts in our City – districts with the worst education and housing systems as well. Minors from just fifteen out of New York City’s fifty-nine community districts comprise 54% of all juvenile detainees.
But despite the enormous flaws of the current system, there’s a proven and you might even say “obvious” solution for fundamental change. New York ought to rely more heavily on alternatives to incarceration programs which almost always provide minors with more personal attention needed to address and potentially resolve the issues that drove these youth to crime in the first place. Typically, these after-school centers are located near the teenager’s home and school. Asides from the incredibly lower recidivism rates that alternatives to youth incarceration have shown, these programs are hugely less expensive. In 2006, it was estimated that it costs anywhere from $171,000 to $201,115 to lock up one child in a detention center for a year while it cost only $9,000 to $12,000 a year to send a child to an alternative program.
The problem is clear: New York’s Juvenile Justice system is not effective. Although many politicians now acknowledge that alternative to incarceration programs are promising, we have not supported enough of these less expensive, successful programs. In fact in the past few years, the New York legislature has increased the number of offenses for which minors can be charged at an adult criminal court, increased the amount of time minors can be detained, allowed youth to be jailed with adults, and expanded unneeded jail space. Ultimately, city leaders continue to spend millions of dollars annually locking up minorities from low-income neighborhoods, instead of directly addressing the societal problems that are leading to these disproportionate arrests.
It is hard to think of any strong argument against placing a non-violent teenager in an alternative to incarceration program. As a seventeen-year-old, I am aware of how youth can be influenced positively and for the long-term by the right programs. As citizens, what we all ultimately want are teenagers who will grow into contributing, educated, caring people of New York City.