Cuomo's Juvenile Justice Overhaul

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowJeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY, discussed Governor Cuomo's plan to reform New York State's juvenile justice system. Travis is chair of the task force Governor Paterson appointed on transforming juvenile prisons, whose 2009 report found serious and widespread problems in the system.

In what was perhaps his most passionate moment during Wednesday’s State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a complete overhaul of the juvenile justice system. The program’s failure is a violation of civil rights, as well as a prime example of the wasteful spending he’ll tackle to reduce the state’s $10 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year, Cuomo said.

I understand the importance of keeping jobs, especially in Upstate New York. I also understand that that does not justify the burden on the tax-payer 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. If people need jobs, let’s get them jobs! Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don’t put other people in juvenile detention facilities to give other people jobs.

Cuomo’s remarks have since been hailed by criminal justice advocates who say his approach is a sign that the governor may push for specific reforms this session. The governor may also be in a position to close many of the prisons his father, Governor Mario Cuomo, opened.

Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has made recommendations for reform in his role as co-chair of the task force Governor Paterson appointed on transforming juvenile justice.

It’s important to note that the state has made a lot of progress over the past four years. The system has already been significantly downsized.

In 2000, there were roughly 2,000 young inmates in the system. As of last week, there were 650 inmates in juvenile detention facilities.

But the system is still bloated, says Travis. Ten of the state’s 25 facilities are less than half-full. In November, Cuomo visited Tryon Center for Boys in Johnston – a facility with 30 state workers and no inmates at all. State law requires 12 months’ notice before a facility is closed, and Cuomo may also be looking to change the law. The visit further brought the problem into the public eye, said Travis.

New Yorkers realize that this is the time to close the deal, this is the time to make sure that this system, which holds our most vulnerable young people is a system that’s worthy of the state and meets our aspirations...and he placed it as a civil rights issue, and I think that’s absolutely right.

Cuomo’s call for reform also follows a proposal made in December by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Roughly 60 percent of the 650 juvenile inmates are from the New York City area, and Bloomberg has called for them to be put in the city’s custody and moved closer to the five boroughs. The cost of their care would be reduced, and having them near their families would help lower recidivism rates. Travis said the proposal is in line with many of the task force’s recommendations.  

Our task force recommended that the young people from New York City and other urban areas of the state be kept close to home. They should be kept close to home so their families can visit them; they should be kept close to home so that when they are released from their facilities they can be released to community-based programs that are more likely to be more helpful to them as reintegrate into the families; they should be kept close to home so that services can be brought in. It doesn't make sense to take a young person from NYC, send him five hours away where his family can’t visit him and expect that that’s going to help him be better off when he comes back.

The state’s expansion of the criminal justice system under Governor Mario Cuomo was a common response to the crime waves of the 1970s, Travis said. But New York State has also recently been “the national leader” in bringing down the size of the adult prison population – a trend which puts the governor in the position of closing many of the facilities his father opened.

As the prison population comes down we’ll have to face this question, which is how do we support the economies of these upstate jurisdictions – the public officials are right when they say we need jobs in our communities – but the governor is also right that it should not be these jobs and we shouldn’t keep a prison population propped up merely to fuel upstate economies.