On Valentine’s Day, while lovers scurried for flower bouquets and boxes of confections, a group of about 50 youth activists lined the steps of City Hall to serenade Mayor Bloomberg. The issue at hand: whether or not New York City loves to imprison its youth. Their song: a rhythmic chant of “Educate, don’t incarcerate.” The chorus of young crooners assembled on City Hall’s steps were there to draw attention to a $64.6 million capital budget allocation they think is damning evidence that our city government plans to lock up more youth.
What is most interesting about this particular allocation is that it has been set aside for construction of youth jails during a severe fiscal crisis when expansion of the city’s juvenile detention facilities is not necessary.
Currently, the city operates three youth detention facilities: in the Bronx, Horizons, and Spofford, which reopened as Bridges, after a multi-million dollar renovation was completed in 1998, and Crossroads in Brooklyn, also completed in 1998. The $64.6 million is to expand the facilities at Horizons and Crossroads by 200 new cells. According to Mishi Faruquee, spokesperson for the Correctional Association of New York, the expansion is being justified on the basis of Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) projections that youth crime rates will escalate in coming years. These projections were made despite the fact that youth crime has dropped 30 percent since 1994. In addition to the drop in juvenile offenses, according to Faruquee, DJJ Commissioner Fred Patrick has stated that all three facilities were operating at about 70 percent capacity as of December 2001. At the time, she reports, the total population of New York City’s juvenile jails was 294. That’s precisely why the choir of youth activists, fed up with being left out of the process, assembled at City Hall.
“They make decisions for us, without us,” says 21-year-old Chino Hardin of policies that allocate money to expanding prisons while schools fall apart and city communities are neglected. Hardin, once a troubled youth herself, is intimately acquainted with the DJJ and thinks that politicians should listen to the young on solutions for juvenile crime, but tend to turn a deaf ear to them. “Why should they care?” says Hardin. “[Youth] can’t vote, right?”
They may not be able to vote, but they did prove that they can mobilize. The Justice 4 Youth Coalition brought together organizations from across the city, such as Youth Force, and Sister Outsider, along with grassroots activists and law students from NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, to fight the youth detention allocation. This issue has energized young people to organize protests, orchestrate letter campaigns to Mayor Bloomberg, consult with national organizations such as the Justice Policy Institute, and coordinate with youth groups across the country.
Youth have been lobbying City Council members, including Tracy Boyland, whose district encompasses the Crossroads facility; Jose Serrano, whose district includes Horizons; and Robert Jackson and Charles Barron, who spoke at the City Hall rally and pledged to introduce a resolution against the budget item. In short, young people who are most at risk to be victimized by these institutions are engaging in activities to show the lack of necessity for the facilities, and are arguing for the money to go to alternative-to-incarceration (ATI) programs.
Some activists speculate that these organizing activities are the very reason that the money isn’t going into ATI and youth leadership programs in the first place. “They don’t want to see people of color organizing,” says Hardin. “They don’t want to see people of color doing good. They want to keep us down because that’s how the capitalist system that we live in works. They wouldn’t profit and it wouldn’t be in their interests for us to be organized because when we start organizing they know that we gonna bring up the shit that goes on in our community and we’re gonna want to see it fixed.”
Speaking on the overall outlook of the city’s youth detention programs, Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, says, “It’s a pathetic story.” New York was chosen by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an organization focusing on children’s issues, to participate in a program to reform juvenile detention, according to Schiraldi. Although other cities in the program, like Chicago and Portland, showed progress, New York never fully committed to reform, and the program dropped the city from the experiment. “The leadership wasn’t there,” says Schiraldi. A senior associate at Casey, Bart Lubow, told City Limits that in New York, “There was no will to do real detention reform.”
Instead of taking advantage of less costly alternatives to incarceration, New York opted to “get tough” on youth crime and imprison the young. Schiraldi has experienced firsthand the results of incarcerating youth and does not see it as an effective deterrent to crime. According to him, two things happen: The juvenile offenders come out worse and the other youth look up to them. Hardin expresses similar sentiments.
“When kids commit crimes, DJJ is a fucked-up quick fix, like a Band-Aid when I actually need surgery,” says Hardin. “[No one asks], why are these kids acting out? Why are these kids committing crimes? Why are these kids dropping out of high school?” Hardin is frustrated by the the fact that elected officials avoid focusing on problems when it would be cheaper and more beneficial to do so. For the cost of incarcerating one youth for a year, over a dozen can be sent to ATI, and youth offenders who go to ATIs are over 50 percent less likely to return to prison.
“It’s absurd!” Barron said when questioned about the capital project. Referring to a statement by 16-year-old Jesus Gonzalez at the City Hall rally, he said, “We need more books, not bars; schools, not prisons; and if you’re cutting everything else, cut the prison budget too.”
Barron vows to inform his council colleagues of the situation and is committed to working to re-allocate the funds. Whether or not Bloomberg will help reform the juvenile justice system and also continue his crusade for fiscal accountability by re-allocating the $64.6 million remains to be seen. While Barron thinks that Bloomberg’s allegiance will be to his own—the rich and corporate elite—and that the mayor will continue to appease them by cutting social programs rather than raising taxes, the youth activists and grassroots organizations are banking on Bloomberg’s business acumen being an asset to their mission.
Citing examples of cities that have reformed or reduced their prison populations, Kirsten Levingston, director of the Brennan Center’s criminal justice program, argued that Mayor Bloomberg will follow suit. “After all,” said Levingston as she addressed the City Hall rally, “Mayor Bloomberg is a successful businessman and he didn’t strike it rich by investing in operations that weren’t needed or did more harm than good. Locking up more kids isn’t sound fiscal policy and it certainly isn’t sound community development policy.”
Why would the system opt to spend over $130,00 a year to incarcerate one youth, when only $9739 is used to educate one? “The reason why they build more prisons than schools,” said Barron, “is because we’re living in a society that’s building a prison-industrial-complex.”
Barron links the $64.6 million with the 13th Amendment’s assertion that slavery shall not exist except as a punishment for a crime and sees the allocation as indicative of a push to create a pool of prison labor. “The more they build, the more they will fill,” says Barron. “They expect our children to commit crime during times of economic crisis and they’ll have the prisons waiting for them.”
“It’s kind of like a hotel,” says Hardin. “The more people you have filling these beds, the more money you’re going to have.”