Wednesday 2 February 2011

Upstate youth facilities expected to take a hit in budget

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to call for the closing and consolidation of some juvenile justice centers as part of his budget proposal on Tuesday.

While Cuomo has hinted at likely closures in his State of the State address earlier this month, he hasn't released any details, fueling concern among upstate officials about the loss of jobs if facilities are shuttered.
The state operates three youth facilities in Tompkins County and also contracts with a private facility in the county.
State facilities include The Finger LakesResidential Center, formerly called the Louis Gossett Jr. Residential Center, in Lansing, the nearby Lansing Residential Facility for Girls and the MacCormick Secure Center in Caroline. The private William George Agency for Children's Services near Freeville also serves youth, many referred there through the state.
Republican lawmakers who represent districts with the facilities, mainly upstate, are careful to say they would favor closing centers that are nearly empty or serve little purpose.
But they also point out many of the juvenile justice centers around the state provide jobs and serve an important role in reforming troubled youths.
"Those that are empty or don't work appropriately should close," said Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, Orange County, whose district includes the Astor Home For Children. "But those that are working appropriately, those should be kept open. Some of these facilities can show the youths are actually being rehabilitated and won't end up in jail. They have a value. You can't with one sweep of the hand say they're no good."
Still, the centers remain an open target for Cuomo, who has pledged to reduce redundant bureaucracy in his effort to "right-size" state government. The state faces a deficit of $10 billion and the governor has pledged to close the gap through spending cuts and without tax increases.
"An incarceration program is not an employment program," Cuomo said during his State of the State address earlier this month.
The closures of the Annsville Center in Oneida County and Tryon Center For Boys in Johnstown, Fulton County, were completed on Jan. 19, part of an overall plan to reorganize the juvenile justice system in the state.
The Tryon Center drew criticism from Cuomo, who visited the facility after his November election. At the time, Cuomo blasted the state for having a facility that employed 30 people without any residents.
State law requires that a year's notice must be given before facilities like Tryon can close. Cuomo has vowed to change the law.
It costs the state an average of about $220,000 to house a child, but some residents cost about $350,000. The 23 remaining facilities house 656 residents, with 397 vacancies, according to the Office of Children and Family Services. The agency employed more than 3,000 people in 2010.
Democrats in the Assembly and Senate, particularly those from urban areas, have signaled strong support for the idea of closing or combining the centers as part of an overhaul of the juvenile justice system in the state.
"There's no excuse to keep open a half empty detention centers just as a means of bolstering the economy of an upstate community," said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Brooklyn. "It should not be done on the basis of incarceration of children of low-income communities who would be better served in other forms of correctional treatments."
Urban Democrats are mainly concerned with the number of young people sent away from their families to unfamiliar areas of the state. They also point to a rate of recidivism higher than 80 percent.
Jeffries said any plan to scale back the facilities would receive a "warm embrace" by Assembly Democrats, who have a large majority over Republicans.
Past efforts to change the juvenile justice system by Democratic lawmakers in the chamber have been met with mixed results, he said.
"To have a partner in the executive mansion and implement the reforms necessary to turn around the lives of young people who may have gotten into trouble is welcome and the governor will find a great deal of support in the Assembly," Jeffries said.
Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, the top Democrat on the Senate Children and Families Committee, is hopeful Cuomo would be able to pass a reform plan over Republican objections.
"Certainly the governor has a lot of leverage and we anticipate since he's making this a very big priority, so I can't imagine that he's going to back away because one of the senators who represents a facility wants to keep it open," Montgomery said.
Montgomery, like most legislators, has not heard many specifics from the governor's office on his budget plans.
"But definitely there will be fewer young people based on the governor's plan going into that residential custodial system," she said.
Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, whose district includes the Burnham Youth Safe Center in Columbia County, said he is open to discussing the possibility of closing some centers.
But he is also concerned with the impact on cash-strapped local communities without places to send their youthful offenders.
"If you are trying to return those who have been placed in juvenile facilities back to their community, you would not be unreasonable to assume there would be some type of supportive services that would be required," Saland said.
"I'm not sure how that gets addressed in dealing with our budget when we're talking about a deficit as much as $11 billion."

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