by Carlos González
Senator Velmanette Montgomery
NEW YORK CITY - Senate Democrats, child advocates, and clergy joined together today to support Governor Andrew Cuomo's plans to reform the broken juvenile justice system.
In what was supposed to be a press event with Democrats calling on Senate Republicans to drop their "politically motivated opposition to juvenile justice reforms so taxpayers stop paying for a government that doesn't work for them, and children start getting rehabilitative services they deserve," the actual press conference was toned down with no mention of the Senate Republicans position on Gov. Cuomo's 2011-2012 Executive Budget proposal.
The press event was led by Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn), ranking member on the Senate's Children and Families Committee.
Joining Senator Montgomery were Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), Senator Daniel Squadron (D-Manhattan), Judy Yu, Associate Director, Youth Issues - Correctional Association of New York, Juvenile Justice Project, Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, Executive Director - Children’s Defense Fund, Stephanie Gendell, Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, Anthony Ng, Director of Policy and Advocacy - United Neighborhood Houses, Ted Houghton, Executive Director - Supportive Housing Network of New York, Fran York - Good Shepherd Services, Maria Barreto Victoria Kriemelan and Alyce Harriet - The Jewish Board, Amy Sananman, Executive Director - Groundswell Community Mural Project, advocates from the Center for Community Alternatives, and youth from DREAMS - a Brooklyn-based Young Adult Training Program.
According to Senate Democrats, for years, "taxpayers have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to keep empty facilities open to satisfy local political interests over the interests of children of the state."
These facilities did not become empty overnight. The reduction of beds not filled in detention centers throughout the state stretches prior to when Senate Democrats were in the majority. In 2010, Senate Democrats led by Senator Montgomery addressed the crisis by passing the Juvenile Justice Reform Agenda only to see the bill stalled in the Assembly. Montgomery's package would've prevented the inappropriate detention placement of juveniles, provide alternatives to detention, and the training of youth offenders in vocational skills for employment.
Many of the initiatives from the stalled bill are included within the Executive Budget, which was met by high optimism from Senator Montgomery and other alternative to incarceration advocates. Working with the new governor at this point is the highest priority for Senator Montgomery.
"We envision that we can save the state $120 million or more," said Senator Montgomery. "Over 500 children can return back to the community immediately, and with the $225 thousand per bed that it costs the state per per person, we can reduce these costs to $20 thousand locally. This is an effort to give taxpayers some relief."
Weighing in on the discussion was Senator Bill Perkins who said, "Don't put people in juvenile detention centers just to give jobs."
"We know that investing in resources that are local is best to serving juveniles," said Stephanie Gendell of Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. "We call for the closing of facilities that are underutilized, and for the state to reinvest savings into services that help young people."
One of the juveniles, Eddie Velez, spoke directly about how the Center for Community Alternatives has helped him. Velez said, "They kept me out of jail."
Other juveniles advocating on behalf of alternative options to detention centers was Loren Johnson from DREAMS, a youth-building and young adult training program helping young adults become dedicated, responsible, and accountable.
"Because of my involvement with DREAMS, we've learned the principles of leadership," said Johnson.
Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, Executive Director of the Children's defense fund said, "We really have to stay disciplined and unwavering. This is a system that's actually hurting our children instead of helping them.
"We have to build a community infrastructure and not invest into the criminal pipeline," continued Jordan-Simpson. "We have failed them and turned the juvenile justice system into a dumping ground."
Cuomo's budget calls for a reduction in the number of beds at the state's youth detention centers, many of which are scattered across upstate New York. Democrats and advocates alike argue that sending troubled youth, many who come from the greater New York City area, are far from their homes and places an unnecessary and draconian burden on juveniles and families.
Cuomo also wants judges to consider alternative forms of punishment for low-risk youth.
To date, Republicans have been cautious on their support of the idea, but in fairness they must be given time to go through the details of the proposed budget. The closure of facilities would have a severe economic impact to small upstate communities, many of which allowed placement of facilities within communities at a time when nobody wanted detention centers in their backyards.
However, something "must get done because the current policy is not working," said Judy Yu, Associate Director of Youth Issues for the Correctional Association of New York - Juvenile Justice project. "About 89% of boys and 81% of girls are re-incarcerated after leaving these detention centers."
"The challenge is making sure this happens this year," said Senator Daniel Squadron.