As New York moves to close four youth detention centers, the focus shouldn’t be primarily on the shutdown’s economic impact.
That may seem an odd thing to say, since Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget projects that the closures could save $22 million a year, plus avoid millions in capital costs. Taxpayers would welcome those cuts. But the rationale for closing or keeping the centers must be whether they’re needed for juvenile justice aims — not for economic gains.
For decades, New York used prisons and juvenile centers as economic development tools. They were placed in rural communities across upstate where jobs were scarce. It was a lazy form of economic development that failed to address the real problems underlying the decline of rural New York. Local economies should be based on something more productive than imprisonment.
The strategy provided a perverse incentive for draconian prison sentences and mass incarceration. The impact on families and communities, especially among minority groups, was devastating. It was also unnecessary for public safety.
With the repeal of the harsh sentences of the Rockefeller drug laws, and other criminal justice reforms, New York has been putting in place alternatives to incarceration. The positive change has emptied some prison cells; three state prisons are scheduled to close this year.
Similarly, New York’s youth juvenile justice system is shrinking: The state Office of Children and Family Services says the number of youths in detention centers has fallen by 73 percent since 2010. Now, according to Cuomo’s budget, four youth detention centers — three in the Hudson Valley, one on Long Island — are “chronically underfilled,” with roughly two-thirds of their beds typically empty.
The facilities in Columbia and Orange counties are secure centers, for juvenile felons sentenced by adult courts; those in Dutchess and Suffolk counties are non-secure, for young people sentenced by Family Court.
State officials insist the closures will not result in layoffs, but the union representing the workers is concerned. It’s understandable that workers are worried about reassignments and retraining, because those moves are disruptive. Yet keeping those jobs in place is not a reason to keep the centers open. The state should detain no more youths and maintain no more facilities than is necessary.
As with adult prisons, it’s important that those being held in youth detention centers are not too far from their homes and families. Cuomo’s administration should not bypass a law that requires a year’s notice before a facility is closed. That helps ensure the state is making measured and well-considered decisions, and it gives communities and workers time to prepare.