The Kids: Who's in Close to Home, and Why?

Sky* was 13 when she first got into trouble. It started with a fight at school, which led to a three-month suspension. When that was done, she says, she didn’t have the motivation to go back. “I just felt like giving up. I was hanging out with bad influences, skipping school and partying.”

When she started staying out at night, her relationships with her parents crumbled. She stopped speaking to her dad. Her mother locked the door one night, then called the cops when Sky tried to get in through a window. She was arrested for criminal mischief—a charge just serious enough to get her put on probation.

Source: Administration for Children's Services

If she’d stayed out of trouble, Sky’s case would have been closed, but she kept skipping school and missing curfew. After five months, a Family Court judge sentenced her to a ‘non-secure placement’ facility—a locked group home for juvenile delinquents considered to pose very low risk to public safety, opened under the city’s ‘Close to Home’ initiative in late 2012. She stayed in the system for a year before she was allowed to go home.

Demographically, Sky makes for a pretty good archetype of the young people who are sent to the city’s Close to Home facilities. Nearly all are black or Hispanic; most are from a small concentration of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Sky is African American, as were 56 percent of the 329 kids who entered Close to Home lockups in city fiscal year 2014. Another 28 percent were Hispanic. Just two percent were white.

Young people placed in facilities ranged from age 12 to age 17, with the largest number (119 kids, or 36 percent) aged 15. Seventy-six percent of kids admitted to facilities in 2014 were male; 26 percent female.

Source: Administration for Children's Services

Over 40 percent of kids sent to Close to Home lockups in 2014 came from just 16 New York City zip codes. The Administration for Children’s Services publishes a list of zip codes that are home to six or more young people placed in non-secure facilities. If you put them on a map, you see that they’re concentrated in just five contiguous areas of the city. The heaviest concentration of kids comes from zip codes in the Crown Heights and East New York neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where nearly a third of residents live under the poverty line.

The most common reason, by far, that young people end up in city lockups is because they violate probation. Violations were the top charge for more than 30 percent of the kids sent to Close to Home facilities in fiscal year 2014, followed by robbery (11 percent) and assault (10 percent).

Probation violations cases represent a wide range of backstories, says Martin Feinman, an attorney-in-charge at the Legal Aid Society, which represents the majority of juveniles in the justice system. Some kids end up on probation because of minor charges like Sky’s; others start out with more serious offenses like assault.

But the violations that lead to kids being sent to lockup, Feinman says, are often acts, like skipping school, that wouldn’t be considered illegal if they were committed by adults.

Source: Administration for Children's Services

Which raises a tricky question for some observers of the juvenile justice system: How many of the young people sent to non-secure placement facilities really need to be removed from their homes?

Over the past several years, the total number of New York City youth sent to lockups has shrunk dramatically—from more than 1,000 kids in 2008 to 428 kids in 2013. That reduction can be explained, in large part, by dropping crime and arrest rates. But the city also invested millions of dollars in diversion programs and community-based alternatives where young people can receive supervision and services without leaving their families and neighborhoods. (Check out our DATA page for more numbers and stats on 'Close to Home.') 

The stubborn reality remains, however, that a significant number of youth still get sent to lockups not because they demonstrate real criminal intent, but because courts decide they need help that they won’t get at home, says Dr. Jeremy Kohomban, the president of The Children’s Village, which runs two non-secure placement residences as well as community-based juvenile justice programs.

“Many of our young people are put in the system because a judge feels that’s the only way to get this child the kind of services that he or she needs,” Kohomban says. “That’s the worst reason, but it happens all the time.”

When kids in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods make bad decisions, they’re likely to have resources to fall back on. For the low-income kids of color who populate juvenile justice facilities, “the schools are failing, there’s poor housing stock, there’s little employment, there’s gang violence,” Kohomban says. “These are the root causes to why so many kids are being arrested, but we don’t deal with that.”

Instead, police and the court system become the first line of intervention, Kohomban says.

Once young people end up in Family Court, judges use a matrix that considers the severity of the offense, combined with the perceived risk that a kid will offend again, to decide whether or not he or she should be sent to a lockup.

Some of the criteria used to make those decisions, observers say, are weighted against low-income kids of color. For example, poor and otherwise struggling parents may be unable to convince judges that they can control kids’ future behavior.

“Having dependable family resources is a very big factor, as it should be,” Kohomban says. “A parent who is single and struggling may be less likely to be able to step up in court and convince a judge of a family’s ability to be responsible to the court and the community.” 

Other factors used to determine risk include data from police and prosecutors, like the number of prior police contacts. Such information may indicate more about how aggressively policed a kid’s neighborhood is than how likely he is to commit future crimes, says Dr. Jeffrey Butts, the director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It basically says ‘These are the young people that we like to arrest, and that we will probably arrest in the future,’” Butts says.

“I hate that we call kids ‘high risk,’” Butts continues. “I don't know why any judge or prosecutor would go along with a diversion agreement when we call a kid high-risk. I wish we could call them ‘highly vulnerable to future law enforcement contact.’”

Judge Fran Lubow, who has sat on the Family Court bench for 25 years, says that the stories behind judges’ decisions may be more complicated than they appear. When a juvenile delinquency case shows up in court, Lubow says, it frequently takes 20 or more appearances before it gets resolved.

In that time—which is, in general, a period of crisis, Lubow says—judges often watch a young person’s situation deteriorate quickly. “Maybe there’s another arrest,” she says. “Or maybe the young person finds a crew or a gang or gets sucked into sex trafficking because they’re looking for some kind of acceptance.”

“On the surface it can look like a child got placed out of the home on a single misdemeanor charge,” Lubow says. “But in reality there’s all this time and effort and history that’s not out there for public consumption.”

*In order to protect their privacy, all current and former Close to Home residents chose fake names for this report.

by Abigail Kramer