Youth activists had cause for celebration last month when $53 million of a proposed $65 million allocated for the expansion of juvenile correctional facilities was removed from the city budget proposal. While activists and elected officials have worked long and hard to cut the funding from the budget, the move is mainly seen as a first step in the journey to completely reform the city’s juvenile justice system. Activists are now gearing up to get a remaining $11.4 million in juvenile justice funds put into prevention rather than detention.
As previously reported in The Village Voice, a group of young activists and grassroots organizations calling themselves the Justice 4 Youth Coalition mobilized around the issue of juvenile justice reform and lobbied city politicians to fight against the proposed funding. The coalition alerted the public and local officials to the folly of spending $65 million during a fiscal crisis to expand youth facilities when existing ones are operating below capacity and youth crime rates are falling.
The coalition and its political allies see the funding slash as a major victory but are not taking time to pop corks or pat backs. At the offices of the Correctional Association of New York and the Prison Moratorium Project, both coalition members, it was business as usual, as the effort to revamp New York’s juvenile justice system continues.
“Nothing’s really changed here,” says Mishi Faruqee, a spokesperson for the Correctional Association of New York. “We’re gratified that the city did take out the money, but we’re really focusing on what the next steps are. We’re working with a whole coalition of young people around the larger issues of criminalization of youths in New York City, trying to reduce the number of kids who go into the juvenile justice system and creating positive alternatives for young people in the community.”
The current effort is for the reallocation of the $11.4 million remaining in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s (DJJ) capital budget. “For us the campaign goal has always been definitely beyond canceling the money allocated for jail expansion,” says Kate Rhee of the Prison Moratorium Project. “It always has been about reallocation. How do we get the money back into the community? How do we reroute the money to a juvenile justice agenda determined by the youth?”
The $11.4 million in the DJJ capital budget is designated for the maintenance and upkeep of existing youth detention centers such as Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizons and Bridges (once Spofford) in the Bronx. Instead of expanding reactive measures to youth crime such as detention facilities, reformists advocate using the funds for more proactive prevention initiatives and rehabilitation-focused alternative programs.
“The fact of the matter is, prisons are just not working,” says Rhee. “The reason is because rehabilitation is not taking place, and especially when it comes to juvenile crime, we see the recidivism rate is very high for kids coming in contact with DJJ. But recidivism rates are much lower when kids get a second chance and go to alternative-to-incarceration programs.”
A fear that the funds will ultimately be used to expand correctional facilities in lieu of more constructive options troubles both the activists and their elected supporters. City Councilman James E. Davis, one of many council members working with the coalition, wants the $11.4 million to fund construction for alternative-to-incarceration programs.
“That’s winning to me,” says Davis. “That $11 million is not going for them to sneak through the back door and expand youth jails anyway and say, well, since we couldn’t expand it on this scale, we’ll expand it on another scale.”
Wherever the journey takes them, the coalition and its allies pledge to carry on the protracted struggle for juvenile justice reform. The coalition is weighing strategies to capitalize on the momentum the $53 million funding cut has brought to their movement, and Councilman Davis promises more hearings and official action on the issue of the remaining $11.4 million.
“Until the DJJ has a serious effort to prevent incarceration, until they have a serious effort to build lives and not jails, it’s not over for us,” says Davis. “It’s not over for me.”