Editor's note: This story was co-published with The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit daily news publication covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues.
A dozen years ago, New York state revealed that taxpayers were shelling out $140,000 to $200,000 each year to house each young person in the state’s juvenile facilities. Many of these supervised residential centers and deeply troubled youth prisons lined with razor wire and high-security locked gates were less than half full.
The state’s Office of Children and Family Services described in a 2008 report with a cover showing rows of empty beds, why some of the facilities needed shutting down: Public money could be far better spent on investments such as six first-year teachers, six caseworkers, or four undergraduate degrees from the public university system.
Today, that once-shocking price tag has grown four-fold to almost $900,000 a year for some of those detained, making New York’s youth lockups the most costly in the nation.
“There are so many better ways we could spend a million dollars on young people in the juvenile justice system than locking them up in a prison-like facility,” said Nate Balis, a director of juvenile justice at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
The high costs are mostly attributable to low occupancy rates, amid plunging youth crime rates across the state and nation.
After being closed for seven years, the Harriet Tubman Residential Center on Pine Ridge Road in Sennett reopened in 2018 to house up to 25 girls — with 98 staff positions. OCFS said it could not immediately provide information about current detainee and staffing levels; a Freedom of Information Request is pending.
After being closed for seven years, the Harriet Tubman Residential Center in Sennett has reopened.
Today, relatively few beds in the state’s hulking juvenile prisons are filled, and largely fixed staffing and infrastructure expenses have driven up the annual cost. New York’s per-person price now ranges between $748,000 and $892,000 a year, depending on the type of locked facility. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars more than costs at the next most expensive state: New Hampshire at $540,000, according to a July report by the national nonprofit Justice Policy Institute.
Meanwhile, fewer young people ages 12 to 17 are serving time in New York’s locked facilities. Nationally, juvenile arrest rates in 2018 were about a quarter of what they were in 1996. And after the state passed its 2012 Close to Home law, youth from New York City — the majority of those serving time in the state — began to be housed closer to their families and communities rather than in upstate facilities.
The latest state figures show just 247 youth in state juvenile prisons, down from almost 500 10 years ago.
There are also far fewer damning reports on conditions inside. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice found youth in four state-run facilities were subjected to excessive force, given inadequate mental health care and doped up inappropriately on psychiatric drugs. Kids who did as little as fail to follow instructions by putting sugar in their orange juice were the targets of violent staff interventions that sometimes resulted in concussions, broken or knocked-out teeth and fractures.
By 2013, with youth crime down and a growing national movement to house juvenile offenders in more humane and homelike settings, New York state had shut down two of its 12 youth lockups. The 10 prisons that remain are scattered across the state from the mid-Hudson Valley to northwestern Monroe County.
Though the cost of youth incarceration may seem high, some say the numbers need context to be understood. Staff ratios are much higher than they would be in an adult prison, said Jacquelyn Greene, a former assistant deputy counsel with the Office of Children and Family Services and now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.
By law, juvenile facilities must also provide for children’s education and offer vocational and mental health services. Greene noted that youth in custody tend to also “have a lot of medical needs, dental needs and unaddressed medical issues that have to be taken care of while they're there.” What’s more, delinquency rates vary, often cyclically, requiring enough capacity to accommodate regular variation in placement rates, Greene stated in an email.
Amid the pandemic shutdowns, crime among adults continues to drop, according to a recent study published by the National Institutes of Health. But that research also found that some more serious crimes like battery and homicide appear to have stayed the same or increased. And there’s geographic variation: There have been sharp upticks in homicide rates in some major cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Oakland.
Greene said the fact that juvenile facilities are housing such a small number of young people is “good news” for public safety. “And it's good news for kids and families and communities. But the challenge then becomes, how do you downsize the system in order to reduce the cost?”
Jeannine Smith, a spokesperson for the Office of Children and Family Services, confirmed the number of secure youth facilities that the agency has closed and the timing of those closures. But she did not respond to questions about the number and high costs of detaining the youth. Two unions contacted for this story — the State of New York Police Juvenile Officers Association and the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association — also did not respond to requests for comment.
For advocates who have long pointed to institutional abuse, poor recidivism rates and the high cost to taxpayers of New York state juvenile prisons, a price tag approaching $1 million a year is yet another clear example of why the lockups should be shuttered for good. The state’s pandemic-driven budget crisis, they say, only underscores the need for abandoning the near-empty facilities.
There are also equity issues to address. In 2019, youth of color made up 283 of the 388 kids in state custody — 73% in a state in which people of color make up just 30%.
Nationally, youth in state lockups have higher reoffense rates, lower educational attainment, and worse health and employment outcomes, the Justice Policy Institute and other research groups have long reported.
“These systems that are so tied in to large buildings confuse the mission with the infrastructure,” said Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of New York City’s Probation Department. “The mission is to keep us safe and to turn kids’ lives around.”
Across the country, the number of youth housed in prisons has dropped as states like Virginia and Maryland have shut them down, according to tracking by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A report last year by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, which uses research to “expose the broader harm of mass criminalization,” noted a 60% drop in youth confinement since 2000. A month ago, California’s governor finalized plans to shutter its once-sprawling state-run youth prison system.
Hernán Carvente Martinez said his experience shows how damaging prisons can be to a developing child, no matter how serious his or her offense. The Queens resident, now 28, said he grew up in a household with a father who beat him as well as his mother, and he experienced untreated anxiety and depression.
Carvente Martinez said he can’t forget the day in November 2008 that he entered a youth prison in New York’s Columbia County, 2 1/2 hours from his home in Queens at the time. In June of that year he had pleaded guilty to shooting a rival gang member when he was age 15.
After being held four months at a city-run juvenile detention facility, he arrived at the Brookwood Secure Center in the back of a van, arms and legs cuffed. The van pulled through two locked gates. Next, he was strip-searched and handed a red polo shirt and beige pants and taken to the unit where he’d live. As he was walked to his unit, every door locked behind him.
The juvenile justice system was established to rehabilitate young people, Carvente Martinez said, but everything about Brookwood felt like adult prison.
He said what saved him was admission in 2010 to a college program created by a teacher at the facility. It allowed him to graduate after his release and serve on the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, as well as in his current role as strategist for the Youth First Initiative, which seeks to end youth incarceration.
Despite his progress, Carvente Martinez shared freely how self-doubt has hounded him even as an adult: “I thought that I could never screw up because otherwise I would end up in prison again.” Two years ago — six years after leaving Brookwood — he attempted to take his own life, he said.
“I realize now that the harm that these institutions cause our young people is too great,” Carvente Martinez said.
Still, there are signs that resistance to closing upstate facilities could be fierce.
In the past, upstate legislators and juvenile officer unions have successfully fought other proposed shutdowns. In 2007, then Office of Children and Family Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión tried to close four facilities, but the state Legislature restored funding for two — even though one was empty, according to reporting by the Syracuse Post-Standard.
Youth advocates look to Carrión’s tenure from 2007 to 2014 for inspiration. In late 2008, under her leadership, the state launched a publicity campaign to highlight the number of empty beds taxpayers were footing the bill for, and the child welfare agency’s 2008 report was part of that blitz. Some corrections officers were moved into other jobs.
Small counties that may send only one or two offenders to state custody each year have been encouraged by reformers like Schiraldi to use the staggering amount they pay to instead contract with local, private providers.
Others point to the need for more prevention services as the most effective way to decrease reliance on costly prisons, including quality mental health care for troubled youth. Julia Davis, director of youth justice and child welfare for Children’s Defense Fund New York, said while the cost of youth prisons is “shocking,” it’s also an opportunity to look at why we are relying on this type of facility.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares, past president of the association that represents the state’s district attorneys, agrees New York needs to invest in prevention and that costs for state custody have grown exorbitant. “When it comes to spending money for incarceration, there is a checkbook that's open and there's no amount of zeros that someone would consider too much,” he said.
But he’s critical of those who want to shut down lockups at a time he claims the state hasn’t made enough investments in preparing local officials to supervise older and more serious offenders now in their care. The burden is greater, Soares said, under the state’s 2017 Raise the Age law that ensures most 16- and 17-year-olds are not sent to adult jails and prisons and not processed through criminal courts.
“It was a policy shift that did not have dollars flowing along with it to better train the personnel necessary to address these issues,” Soares said. But more important, he added, it did not have the “dollars necessary for the kind of therapeutic counseling and other needs that families in crisis experience.”
Carvente Martinez was housed at Brookwood during the period when Carrión was making changes so that secure youth facilities would feel more rehabilitative and less punitive. But he recalled corrections officers referring to those changes as “hug a thug” and continuing to treat him and others there like future criminals.
He’s been back to visit Brookwood three times since 2015. Today it’s a tan, low-slung warehouse of a building sitting behind five rolls of razor wire strung along a 20-foot chain link fence. On his last visit he noticed the walls had been painted with inspirational people, quotes and other art. But it still had locked and bolted doors, security cameras and the standard features of most prisons, he said.
It’s why he now believes trying to reform youth prisons won’t work, because they don’t redirect young people to healthier and safer futures.
“Painting a place,” Carvente wrote in an email, “doesn't change the toxic energy in the air.”
Steven Yoder is a freelance reporter for The Imprint. He is based in Woodstock and can be reached at email@example.com.