Julia was 15 years old and living in New York City. In a moment of weakness, she shoplifted a pair of jeans worth $100.
She got caught and ended up on probation, assigned to 100 hours of community service. When Julia missed a day of school for a doctor’s appointment, she unknowingly violated the terms of her probation. She later ended up in a limited-secure facility, although she had not committed a new crime. Fearing for her safety, she ran away from the center. When caught, Julia was moved to a more secure facility. Her path from a minor violation of the law to detention, which most would assume was only for more serious offenders, provided a clear example of a broken system.
Julia’s case was not unique. At one time, more than half of the young people who entered New York State’s juvenile facilities were there for misdemeanors—relatively minor offenses, like stealing a pair of jeans. And the juvenile system was no place for them. It was under federal investigation for civil rights abuses. It was ineffective—far from being rehabilitated, nine out of ten detained young people returned soon after their release. It was also expensive: the state spent more than a quarter of a million dollars per youth per year.
By 2010, there were signs that people were ready for change. Pockets of reform had emerged around the state, but the efforts were not coordinated or aligned. A group of agency leaders from Albany and New York City formed a steering committee and called on FSG to help develop a strategic plan for the state and help them implement it.
The challenge was that young people were truly caught in a system that no one person or agency—or even the governor—could change alone. So helping Julia and others like her meant getting leadership from different sectors to align and work toward a fairer, more equitable, and safer system.
It wasn’t easy.
FSG engaged representatives from 62 counties statewide and hundreds of agencies, from the courts and police to mental health and child welfare services, during the research and planning. Police officers concerned with public safety sat down and talked with youth advocates who cared about rehabilitation to imagine what the system could look like if it worked effectively. As Jacquelyn Greene, director of juvenile justice policy for New York State at that time, recalls: “[N]obody was lobbying anybody. It gave us a chance to realize we were all on the same page.”
After six months of interviews, research, and stakeholder meetings, the group used what it had learned to develop a common vision for system excellence that took into account both community safety and positive youth outcomes. Group members then adopted a set of strategies to help them reform the system to achieve those goals. For the first time, law enforcement, county services, state agencies, the courts, and advocacy organizations began to work together toward shared goals.
The collaborative relationships laid the foundation for dramatic policy changes. A number of secure juvenile justice facilities were closed, reducing costs for the state. “Close to Home” legislation, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and signed into law in 2012, ensures that a young person like Julia would now be served in a local program rather than shipped to an upstate facility. Statewide juvenile arrests dropped by 24 percent by the end of 2012. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of youth in state custody declined by 45 percent with no increase in crime. And as a result of the widespread success of the reforms, Governor Andrew Cuomo used his 2014 State of the State Address to call for the age of criminal responsibility in New York to be raised from 16 to 18.
Today, the heads of state agencies that oversee various systems meet regularly. Performance metrics that previously rested in different agencies and data sets that did not previously exist are woven together into real-time decision-making tools. Local communities are integrated into the state planning process, and eight Regional Youth Justice Teams work across the state to build broader alignment and better results. Momentum is strong and progress continues. Today, young people like Julia are served more effectively and closer to family and natural support systems. The result of this collaborative effort is that the system is now less focused on punishing for a single misstep and more aligned to serve young people in a way that promotes their individual success, which in turn makes New York’s communities safer.
About the New York State Juvenile Justice System
The New York State juvenile justice system is a highly complex network of public and private agencies, organizations, and courts. As a result of this process, new systems were established to foster coordination and communication. A strategic planning and action committee, chaired by leaders from the Judiciary, Public Safety, and Human Services Departments, leads and oversees implementation and drives reform forward.