Child Welfare Watch: Brushes with the Law

Young New Yorkers and the Criminal Justice System 

In the past decade, New York City has transformed its treatment of children and young adults who get in trouble with the law. The city has cut the number of kids it sends to juvenile lockups by two-thirds, investing in a system of alternative programs that provide supervision in young people’s homes and neighborhoods.

For older teens and young adults, criminal justice agencies have launched a continuum of services that includes job training, mentorship and education assistance, designed to get probationers and parolees connected to community-based support systems. The goal is to move young people out of the criminal justice system more quickly, divert them away from jails and prisons, and keep communities whole.

Ironically, the site of least reform has been at the criminal justice system’s front door. While other city agencies have worked to de-criminalize and de-incarcerate, the New York Police Department has continued a two-decade policy of aggressive crackdown on low-level crimes, concentrated heavily in the city’s lowest-income, black and Latino neighborhoods. As a result of growing anger and advocacy in minority communities, police tactics like stop-and-frisk promise to be a major issue in the 2013 mayoral and City Council elections.

This issue of Child Welfare Watch looks at what has changed and what hasn’t. As the city enters its final year under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made juvenile justice one of the signature issues of his time in office, we consider the progress of reforms and the places where they’ve been stymied. And we look at the impact on communities that have long been destabilized by cycles of crime, police scrutiny, arrest and incarceration.

Our findings include:

  • The number of arrested teens aged 15 and under whose cases have been diverted from court—or adjusted—and closed by the city’s probation department increased 47 percent between 2009 and last year. This number has more than doubled since 2006.  (See “Case Closed.”)
  • Last year, the NYPD conducted more than 151,000 patrols in NYCHA buildings, or more than 400 per day. Public housing residents make up about 5 percent of the city’s population, but from 2006 through 2009, roughly half of all NYPD trespassing stops in the entire city took place in public housing. (See “To Protect and Serve?”)
  • Following a year-long negotiation that included tenant leaders and police, trespassing stops in public housing dropped by almost 60 percent. There’s no evidence that cutting back on trespass stops tied the NYPD’s hands when it came to making other arrests.
  • New York’s policy of trying 16- and 17-year-old nonviolent offenders as adults in criminal court reduces each teen’s lifetime earnings potential by more than $60,000. The state loses at least $50 million in foregone wages for each annual cohort that passes through the adult courts—and unknown millions in lost tax revenues. (See “The High Cost of Convicting Teens as Adults.”)
  • In the coming months, ACS plans to spend $22 million to provide short term, evidence-based therapies to work with about 3,000 families. This is a targeted effort to reduce the number of children 12 years old and older placed in foster care. (See “Social Workers at the Kitchen Table.”)

The report considers new projects led by the city’s Department of Probation, which has committed to investing in the neighborhoods where probationers live, partnering with residents and organizations to make communities stronger. It looks at the potential—and the limitations—of efforts to raise the New York State age of criminal responsibility, treating some 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles, rather than adults, in court. Finally, it considers the adaptation of evidence-based social services, developed for use in juvenile justice cases, to teens at risk of entering foster care.

The report offers a set of policy recommendations and solutions informed by the research and drafted by a panel of practitioners, experts, parents, young people and others, aimed at helping policymakers continue toward cohesive criminal justice reform. These include:

  • City Hall and the NYPD should invest significant resources into repairing relationships with communities that experience aggressive policing.
  • The Department of Probation should make good on its commitment to work with communities, creating infrastructure for shared decision-making and partnership.
  • The state legislature should pass, and governor Cuomo should sign, a bill that would transform the treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds in criminal court.
  • Prosecutors should make full use of the pilot diversion court programs in criminal court.
  • As ACS expands evidence-based preventive services, it must continue to invest in promising practices and support program design and research.
  • City Hall and the City Council should ensure that evidence-based preventive services are available to families not involved with child protective services.
  • City Hall must invest more heavily in community supports like childcare programs and housing assistance, which help families and communities stay strong.

This edition of Child Welfare Watch is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Prospect Hill Foundation, the Pinkerton Foundation, the Child Welfare Fund, the Ira W. DeCamp Foundation and the Viola W. Bernard Foundation.